It’s uncomfortable how unreliable our memories are. Memories are commonly thought to work like a computer. You open up a folder, bring up the specific file, and read the memory like data. But memories are fluid. Every time we remember something we rebuild the moment from scratch. Any tiny detail can worm its way in and convince us its original because narrative memory and historical memory look exactly the same in our brains. We need both, but the realization that memory is so riddled with holes is troubling when thinking back on anything that’s happened to you in your life. The truth is, whether something happened or not doesn’t matter when you remember it. How many times have you and a friend had completely different recollections of a past experience? You’re certain you remember it the way it really was, but so is your friend. The actual events are lost forever, but that doesn’t change how you feel. The details of all the important parts of your life might have never happened. At least not how you remember them. But you shape them and make them fit your narrative. The story of you.
The next time you argue with a friend and you shout, “I told you I was going to be here at 3!” and she says, “You never said that. You were supposed to text me when you left!” Both of you should pause for a second. Unless there’s physical evidence one way or the other, it’s unlikely either of you will be convinced by asserting how confident you are that your memory is the correct version. No matter how many family member’s graves you swear on, that information is beyond both of you. Perhaps, you should pause, acknowledge that our minds aren’t too ready to switch beliefs at the word of someone else, and move on.
I sometimes sit alone in my room (okay, I do that frequently) and think about random topics – like memory and innate behaviors. Then I imagine how I would broach the subject with a friend the next time we hang out. I play out a few different abbreviated versions of the interaction in my head. A few days later, I’ll find myself at lunch with the aforementioned friend and unable to remember if I actually had the conversation earlier in the day or just the imagined versions. On occasion, I can’t, no matter how hard I try, remember. And I have to say, “Did I tell you about..?” before proceeding.
This would be absolutely terrifying if I didn’t know it was common. Ever heard a story so many times you could tell it yourself, but your unaware friend bristles with excitement at the thought of telling you about her crazy uncle’s arrest?
But even knowing it’s common doesn’t stop how scary the implications are. Sure, a conversation or a little story are no big deal. But it goes much further. This fallibility applies to all of our memories. Do I really remember the joy of going to the fair when I was little or did my family tell the story of my happiness so many times that it’s formed its own unique, but false, memory inside my head? Did I really have frequent, long conversations about World War II with my grandpa before he died, or was there just one or two and I’m imagining others because it makes narrative sense that we would talk about it?
I honestly don’t know how much I cried at my grandma’s funeral. I can remember feeling awful. I can remember it hurt. I also remember walking outside and sitting on the curb, looking out at the city covered in fog, and crying.
Did I make up that story?