Case of the Malleable Memory
Are you recounting romantic situations accurately?
Posted November 28, 2014
“I really like him” is how a conversation began with a friend this past weekend over Bloody Marys at La Esquina in NYC. She sat in front of me twisting her celery stick and allowing the red froth to soak the giant ice cubes while recounting details of her latest crush. “But wait, didn’t you tell me that he flirted with, like, three other girls in front of your face last weekend?” I asked. “Well, now that I’m re-thinking the situation, he wasn’t really flirting. He was just chatting casually—I mean, not unlike what we’re doing now," she recanted.
It’s wise to reframe situations so that your cocktail is half full, but you must also be wary of what happens when your mind begins to actually misrepresent information. At this point, psychologists know a lot about the memory. We know the hippocampus, located in the limbic system, is the area of the brain that controls our memories. We know that there are guerilla-memory tactics, like acronyms, to enhance our minds’ ability to recall information. If “King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti” wasn’t your saving grace when memorizing the animal kingdom’s classification system, you’re either lying to yourself or maybe you created your own mnemonic device (in which case, please share).
But we also know that memory is malleable. And while your memory can at times act as your closest confidant, helping you remember what you need for school and work, it can also Benedict Arnold you. It can convince you that you saw something that wasn’t actually present. It can reconstruct entire scenarios. It’s not that our memories are trying to attract us to the wrong person or make us sound daft when recounting romantic details. Rather, it’s that our memories and strong emotions are inextricably intertwined. One possible reason for our brains’ ability to distort the truth comes from the fact that how we appraise situations in the present often influences how we perceive what happened in the past. This is what psychologists call “mood-congruency”: our current mood determines memory retrieval of a past mood.
When you’re sitting with your friends describing situations that were at one time painful while simultaneously playing Sam Smith, it becomes hard to retrieve negative memories. Instead, your mind grasps for positive associations that you’re currently exhibiting. How can you feel any sort of hashtag-hate when Sam is belting like that?
Psychologist and memory connoisseur Dr. Daniel Schacter says that part of the difficulty of reconstructing events is due to the hodgepodge of information in front of us when retrieving and recalling past experiences. We’re biased by our current attitudes, knowledge, and moods. In a now-famous memory study, Dr. Linda J. Levine had participants rate their emotional reactions to one-time Presidential candidate Ross Perot after he abruptly withdrew from the 1992 election. When he surprisingly re-entered the race, participants were asked to recall the initial emotions they first reported after his withdrawal. The study found that people could not accurately recall their initial negative feelings about Perot’s withdrawal. Participants’ memories were distorted by their current, more positive, attitudes about his re-entering the race.
Though reconstructing memories can sometimes be beneficial in easing anxiety or getting over grudges, proceed with caution. Consistently distorting scenarios to believe your guy or gal was friendly-chitchatting other bar patrons at Wilfie & Nell when he or she was really compiling an inventory of digits is likely to cause problems. It can also confuse the way we feel about Independent presidential candidates, and who wants that? One tactic we can use to overcome our proclivity to distort memories is compartmentalizing our emotions and memories when retrieving important information. We can also consult others who were present at the scene and who might be able to provide an objective social audit. When in doubt, consult the mnemonic almanac for: F.D.L.F.M.L. (Friends don’t let friends’ memories lie.) Now that's something to remember.