Reality Check: Memories can be Beautiful

I feel a chill whenever I hear of someone being prosecuted for a crime that’s said to have happened many, many years ago. It’s particularly disquieting when the prosecution is not based on physical evidence but rather, based solely on someone’s memory of an event.

My choice of discomfort about those stories is based on my perception of how memory works. It seems to me that memory is rather “flexible,” that is, what I remember and what someone else remembers of the same event can be surprisingly different!

So I was interested in a recent article by Dr. Joel Wade on memory. He suggests that our memories are not so much like a video of what happened, rather “…like stories we’ve created of our personal experience; an amalgam of emotions, perspective, and interpretations of events. We remember the meaning we made of the events at the time.”

What is the meaning that we make of events?

Angie’s kitty, Socks, was accidentally let out of the house on a cold winter evening. As Socks is an indoor cat, Angie and her dad frantically looked for him. After hours of trudging through the snow, knocking on neighbour’s doors, crawling under bushes and looking into all the cat-sized hiding places, Angie and dad eventually found that Socks had returned. There he was, sitting on the doorstep: cold, wet, and perturbed.

Angie’s memory of the evening was that of a great adventure. She and dad went off into the wilderness on their courageous quest to find Socks. The day ended with hot chocolate, a purring kitty, and a comfortable, satisfying time of family togetherness. Everything was perfect.

Dad’s memory was a bit different. He remembers being distressed by Angie’s tears, and resentful that Socks’s great escape had interfered with the peaceful evening that he’d been looking forward to. While he was relieved that the cat came back, plodding through the snow with a sobbing child hadn’t really enhanced his day.

When Angie tells the story, the adventure is even bolder and the ultimate return of Socks is even more amazing.

When dad recounts the story, the evening is colder and the aggravation is even greater.

The meaning that Angie created for the event is quite different from the meaning that dad created.

When you think back on an event, are you aware of the meaning that you create around it? Or do you perceive that your memory is like a video—that everyone has seen and remembers exactly the same pictures?

For example, think back to junior high. Do you remember being forced to stand up in front of the class to give a presentation? Your memory may be of anxiety and mortification while your classmate’s memory may be that you were poised and confident.

Do you remember a vacation, filled with rain, squabbling, and no internet? Perhaps your children remember staying inside together, telling stories and playing games.

While there will be similarities in people’s memories of a shared event, many other factors are at play—our perceptions, our feelings, and the meanings we apply.

So even if we ignore forgetfulness, other factors contribute to the accuracy of our memories.

What about unhappy memories that we’d rather not have living in our heads? Do you think they be changed if you bring a different perception or different meaning to them?

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