Memory doesn’t exist to help us perfectly recall things in our lives. It’s there to help us survive. And to do its job properly, memory must evolve. Here’s a quick recap of the ways memory is flawed and why arguing about the accuracy of memories is like running on a gerbil wheel and expecting to get somewhere new.
Though it’s been said for years that memory is like a video recording we can play back, it turns out the metaphor is flawed. Each time we recall a memory, we combine details we do remember with our expectations for what we should remember. The revised memory then gets stored, and it is that revised memory we recall next time. And so on.The longer the time between an event and its recollection, the greater the inaccuracy.
It would be more useful, then, to think of memory like a perpetually edited video that shares only some data with the original recording.
When something momentous happens, we often try to make meaning of it by talking to others and gauging their reactions, says Avril Thorne, a psychologist studying narrative memory at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The feedback we receive from their reactions then shapes our future memories of what transpired. The editing continues.
Vivid memories feel more accurate, but they aren’t more accurate. The strong, vivid recollection of very emotional memories, like the ones many of us in the United States have of 9/11, are just as likely to be inaccurate as ordinary memories are. I’ve had audience members chide me for being wrong about this and tell me I should be ashamed of myself for daring to question their vivid memory of 9/11.
We just don’t want to believe it; we believe those memories are more accurate because they feel so vivid. Our emotions affect how we think we remember, even if they do not affect how much we actually remember.
Dr. Joel Voss, professor of medical social sciences and neurology at Northwestern University, puts it this way: “Memory is designed to help us make good decisions in the moment and, therefore, memory has to stay up-to-date. The information that is relevant right now can overwrite what was there to begin with.”
Next time you find yourself arguing over who said what, who did what, why their recollection is wrong, or how you know for sure that your recall is absolutely right, I recommend you stop and do something else.
It is unknowable, it keeps you stuck, and odds are good your recollection is less accurate than it feels (and so is theirs).