If you’ve reached the age when you’re starting to doubt your own memories, don’t worry. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s a complete waste of time debating whether leaves were beginning to fall or there was already snow or the ground, or whether it was Aunt Bess or Cousin Margaret or even if it was just an awkward choice of words or a calculated verbal assault designed to ruin your holiday. The part you recall, and the part with which no one can argue, is how you felt about the event, not how it happened.
Timothy Leary explained that other kind of truth saying “we are each the stars our own life story,” unable to see beyond the prism of our own experience. But, there’s more to it than that. Our life stories are, by definition, works in progress. To retain any relevance at all, events are continually reconsidered and revised. The past is influenced by the present as much as the present is influenced by the past.
Now, neuroscience has begun to catch up with what psychology has known for decades. Memories, particularly important ones, are not like photographs that freeze a moment in time: they are more like keepsakes that are reframed with each new look. Studies by Karim Nader, at McGill University, indicate that each recollection of a significant memory triggers the production of new proteins used to store that memory. The chemical process of recalling a memory is not unlike the process of creating it in the first place.
He says important events, the “flashbulb” memories thought to consolidate over time, are actually most susceptible to change since we replay them over and over. That, by the way, is not a bad thing; it’s essential to managing Post Traumatic Stress.
But even innocuous recollections are subject our value systems. For my niece, a sweater I passed on to her years ago was navy blue, well-worn and meaningful. In my mind it was black, rather new (laundry mishap) and Armani. I’ve no conscious purpose for altering that image; there was no consciousness involved at all. Yet, there I stand, lead actor in this little movie in my head, pulling the practically new, black, turtle-neck out of bag in her living room.
Poetic license allows the replacement of items that don’t resonate with a particular audience with ones that do to convey the most accurate meaning in a particular medium. Telling the truth, you might say, sometimes requires tweaking it. Although I’m certain that I hadn’t tweaked anything, I even more certain that the neurological/psychological process of developing our own storylines is far more complex, multi-layered and pluralistic than anything Miramax could imagine.
Legendary film director, Luis Bunuel, writing his autobiography in his eighties, offered up this disclaimer: “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths…I am the sum of my errors and doubts as much as my certainties. Such is my memory.”
So, next time a family member, old friend or classmate shares a memory you find utterly absurd, anachronistic, uncharacteristic or just plain stupid, remember: you’re hearing the review not the script.