Our memories suck

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And I don’t mean that we remember crappy things, just that we can be crappy at remembering things. 

There is one point from the intro to psychology class I took in college that has always stood out to me.  There was a section on how our memories actually really suck. 

We learned about different experiments showing how memories weren’t always accurate.  In one of them, people watched a couple doing things like having a picnic and walking by a lake.  Afterward they were shown pictures of the couple from the activities they had observed as well as pictures of the couple doing things in the same setting that they hadn’t actually witnessed.  When asked about it later, the people remembered watching the couple doing the things in the pictures even though they had never actually seen the couple doing those things.  Basically their brains just filled in those memories.

There are all sorts of ways that our brains scramble memories, mixing up who was there or what order things happened in or just inserting things that didn’t happen.   (One place this is a big deal is when it comes to witness testimony about crimes.) 

Most of us accept on some level that there are just things that we forget.  Although some days this is easier to accept than other days like when we swear our partner didn’t inform us about particular plans.

While we generally accept that we can be forgetful, it’s a lot harder to accept that the things we do remember may not be accurate.  It’s sort of disturbing to think about.  If we can’t trust our memories, how do we even know what’s real? 

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been witness to two people remembering things differently and both being sure that they were right.  I don’t just mean cases where people interpreted events differently although that is a whole other thing that happens.  I’m referring to situations where people differ on something more factual. 

For example, my sister swears I had my wisdom teeth out before she did because it was my getting them out that made her think about it.  My mom swears that my sister had hers out first because before I got mine out I asked something about if I would react the same as my sister had.  Obviously, they can’t both be right.  (I actually don’t have a side on this.  I remember quite a bit about getting my wisdom teeth out and a little bit about my sister getting hers out but nothing that relates the timing of the two events.)  Surely you’ve witnessed the same sort of disagreement and probably even been one of the two parties on occasion.

After learning about how crappy our memories are, I approach those sorts of conversations much differently.  I don’t make any sort of effort to prove that my version of events is the right one.  I generally just try to hurry the conversation along to a different topic or say something like “That’s not how I remember it.” 

I realize that perhaps my memory is faulty in the case at hand.  Or more likely that the other person’s memory is.  I accept that they just remember it wrong, but that it is indeed how they remember it.  To them, that memory is real.  It doesn’t matter whether or not it happened how they remember it.  That is their reality.  

Most people don’t realize that our memories suck.  Faced with a disagreement about something they remember, they will fight to the death convinced that they are right.  It’s best to avoid those sorts of arguments. 

It helps just to keep in mind that our memories suck and most people don’t realize this fact.  They are not arguing because they are trying to prove you wrong.  They just remember it how they remember it and don’t recognize that their memory could be wrong.  Or your memory could be wrong.  Or my memory might be wrong. 

For further reading check out this Wired article: False memories and false confessions: the psychology of imagined crimes.  (My favorite line from it: …courts should adopt a new oath: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?”)

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