Lee Eisenberg

The Point Is

Are Your Memories Lying to You?

Are our memories "true"—and if they're not, does it matter?

Posted Apr 13, 2016

Researching my latest book, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out the role our memories play in whether or not we decide our life is meaningful enough. Looking for clues, I consulted cognitive psychologists, poets, and philosophers (the real kind and the barroom kind).  If there’s one thing everyone agreed on, it’s that our memories are far from accurate. There are those who speculate that once you retrieve a memory it’s no longer the same memory. It’s a new memory of an old memory. Others will tell you that what we think of as a memory isn’t even a memory. It’s an actual experience we live through again and again. Each time we remember something we construct the experience anew.

Whatever our memories are or aren’t, wherever and however they’re stored, they’re shifty. In a book about autobiographical memory, psychologist John Kotre describes how over time memories have a way of rewriting what passes for reality. Good people in our past grow into better people. Bad people regress into worse people. A two-pound bass that we caught on our last vacation may eventually balloon into Moby-Dick.  Kotre tells of how we commonly say we “always did this” and “never did that,” when in fact we never did this and always did that.

But we’re not really lying, are we? I’ve told people, for instance, that when I was a kid I was always the youngest to make a sports team. Yet because I was a shrimp, I never got to play much, always rode the bench. I honestly believe that’s true. But if you ran an intensive background check on my athletic career at summer camp, then delved into my participation in pickup teams at school or around the neighborhood, you’d find precisely one instance of my being the youngest to make a team. Then why do I say that I was always the youngest to make the team (but never played)? Because it helps define me in the present. I’d like you to understand that I was athletic but not that athletic.

Here's another example:

I’ll swear up and down that I never once cheated in school. And I really, truly believe I never did. But I’m also reasonably sure there were times in elementary school when I must have glanced over at Jeannie M.’s paper. (Jeannie was a genius, never got anything wrong.) Why have I erased any memory of glancing over? John Kotre quotes a developmental psychologist who reminds us that “once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it doesn’t remember being a caterpillar; it remembers being a little butterfly.” In my own mind, I’m a fully grown ethical person and honestly don’t remember ever being a little thief.

Copyright © 2016 by Lee Eisenberg
Source: Copyright © 2016 by Lee Eisenberg

Having weighed all this, I lay out a theory in the book about how, without thinking, we take our memories and build a story out of them—the story of your life, the one you carry around inside. How exactly does that story get "written"? According to my theory, each of us has a little storywriter nestled in our brain. His or her assignment is to take our memories and weave them into a coherent narrative. Our storywriters aren’t out to spread falsehoods by doctoring our memories. They’re merely doing what they can to create a story that tracks. So they jiggle memories, playing up some, downplaying others, such that the memories don’t contradict each other or muddy the overall theme.

If, by way of example, you’re currently stuck in a lousy job because you flunked out of school, the memory of all the dope you smoked may by now have given way to the memory of your mother saying you were one of those students who doesn’t do well in a traditional classroom setting. Or you may clearly remember how your now ex-wife said she needed her space—and have no recollection of all the times she asked you to please stop chewing with your mouth open. Your storywriter’s only trying to help when she allows certain memories to take precedence over others.

In the end, the story of our life comes down to the memories we hold onto.  Are those memories "true"? Yes and no. There’s historical truth and there's narrative truth. Memories, of course, are slippery. We’re sure that certain things happened that in fact never happened.

Does it matter? Not especially.  “What matters in life,” wrote Gabriel García Márquez in his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, “is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” 

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This post is adapted from THE POINT IS: Making Sense of Birth, Death and Everything in Between (Twelve). For more information about Lee Eisenberg and his latest book, please visit LeeEisenberg.com or go to Amazon or your favorite bookstore to purchase a copy.