We’re used to thinking about memories like video recordings that are stored somewhere within our grey matter. But what if I told you that our memories are less like files on a hard drive and more like a stack of note cards on which only words describing your feelings are written? How could that be, right? When you recall something from your memory, it is as if it is playing back a video; clear and crisp. But that’s not what’s happening. You’re actually reconstructing the scene, piece by piece, based on the general feelings that you felt. In fact, if we were to actually record the scene in question to video, then ask you to recall it a year later only from memory, we could compare just how far your recollection has drifted from reality.
A professor actually did that with his students. In 1986, the day after the Challenger explosion, Ulric Neisser asked his students to write down what happened to them when they first heard the news. Three years later, he tracked down the 44 students who remained on campus and asked them to recall, once more, the scene of them learning of the disaster. Upon comparing the stories, each of the same stark, dramatic, traumatizing experience, told by the same person only three years apart, the differences were astounding. Few of the newer stories even resembled the ones written on the day after.
The most fascinating part of the study was that the students claimed that their newer story was more accurate. We instill so much unwarranted confidence in our recollection and interpretation of events. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the brain you live in. If you can’t be counted on to accurately remember the most important moments of your life, what can you be counted on for?
Here are a few quick bullet points about our memories that you might find interesting:
- No matter how hard we focus on the details at the time, we still only memorize the gist of what happened.
- We interpret events according to our emotional state, which adds further distortion to our recollection.
- Memories change every time we recall them. When we tell the story, we factor in the experience of recalling it.
- We have the same confidence in a false memory as we do in a real one because they are impossible for us to tell apart.
Read the second bullet again. It’s a big deal because our feelings can warp our reality as we experience it. And then we’re tasked with explaining our own actions to ourselves. We tell people why we made certain decisions or performed certain actions because of how we felt at the time. But there’s also a huge gap in our understanding of what motivates us. A lot of times, we make decisions based on what we believe is logic, but, in reality, the decision was made far before we even thought about our preference.
One experiment to demonstrate this was done on some amateur chefs. They were given one of two different recipes. Actually, the recipes were exactly the same, except one was a bit easier to read than the other one. They were then asked to rate the difficulty of the recipe and if they were likely to prepare it. As you might suppose, those given the harder-to-read recipe rated it as more difficult and were less likely to want to prepare it. What is most peculiar is that nobody cited the readability of the recipe as to why it was so difficult, yet it was clearly the only difference. This demonstrates not only the importance of readable content, but also the ways in which we’re blind to our own decision-making mechanics.
From a philosophical standpoint, this brings up some interesting questions. What are we, if not our memories? Our identities are the memories of who we were just the moment before. If we are not reliable custodians of our own identities, are we then just transient minds, always in between one state and the next? What is there to trust in this world? We can’t be too foolish if we’ve gotten this far by trusting ourselves, so why should be stop?
It’s no surprise that, since the time man was first able to record his history, things have been developing faster and faster. We may not be able to trust ourselves, but we can trust our recordings. We can trust objectivity that goes beyond hearsay and eyewitness. Most importantly, we can just stop listening to people who favor subjective, experiential explanations over solid evidence.