Learning Lab

Should I Believe My Memory?

By Amy Brann

Every moment of our life, we are forming new memories. Good ones. Bad ones. Detailed ones. Hazy ones. And although people often describe the way we remember these memories as being like a movie reel (re)playing out in our mind’s eye, this is in fact incorrect.

Memory doesn’t work like that.

Not a movie reel

Instead, recalling a memory – and we are talking here more about memories of events, so-called “episodic” memory, rather than facts – is a bit like completing a kind of sophisticated jigsaw.

This is because memory is a reconstructive process where your brain tries to rebuild the remembered experience from its component pieces – the who, what, where, when of the original event. Accurately recombining these pieces of information enables you to form an image in your mind of what happened, who was there, where you were, how it made you feel and so on.

But what’s interesting about this is that the way your brain does this – in other words the choice of pieces that it puts together, and how these pieces are organised – isn’t fixed. It is variable. Flexible. Open to interpretation.

Biases in recollection

This is because the way that we reconstruct a particular experience is in fact distorted by our own internal drives, attitudes, and emotions. This is why we might remember something from our past differently depending on whether we are feeling cool, calm and collected or all stressed out.

It also partly explains why two people may remember a shared experience completely differently, potentially creating conflict. Because not only might they have stored away – or encoded – different pieces of information at the time, but the way their reconstruct those remembered pieces of information into the memory during recollection could also be different.

Creating false memories

From time to time, you can also have actual errors in your memory. Inaccuracies which creep in without you realising. One of the reasons for this is because memory is closely related to the process of imagination at the level of your brain. In fact, they actually rely on the same or very similar neural machinery which makes up your brain’s so-called “default network”. They also use the same pool of stored information as their “food for thought”.

In the case of memory, the brain is trying to correctly reconstruct a remembered experience from the stored pieces of information. In the case of imagination, the brain is taking the stored pieces of information and mixing them up to create something new, different, even surreal.

But sometimes there is an error. And instead of getting the correct reconstruction, the brain accidentally includes something new – an incorrect detail. Something that wasn’t there originally.

And this is when you get a false memory. When you think you remember some detail that didn’t actually occur or wasn’t actually there. Such inaccuracies are often inconsequential if a little irritating to everyday conversations. But if they happen in the context of a strategy or budget discussion, or even in relation to witness testimonies during employee disputes, then the implications can become more far-reaching and serious.

A grey zone between reality and fantasy?

The line between reality and fantasy in your mind is therefore potentially much closer than you might think. And although this close association between memory and imagination may seem an inconvenient confound in your ability to recall the world accurately, it actually allows your brain to become a time travel machine. You can travel back into your past. Project yourself into your future. This is an essential form of adaptability which allows you to prepare for the future and learn from the past effectively. In fact, this ability to look beyond the present is one mental faculty that some scientists think differentiates us from other animals and birds.

Debunking the movie reel myth.

Debunking the myth that your memory is like a movie reel, is the first step in understanding how your memory for life events works. And in realising that although you can broadly trust it, (otherwise what would be the point of having memory?) it can, on occasion, play tricks on you. Distorting, twisting and biasing a memory that you think is an accurate representation of the truth.

So next time you find yourself at odds with someone about some detail of an event – a TV show that you’ve both watched, what your manager said during the meeting, an emotionally charged altercation between two colleagues that you both observed – take a moment to wonder whether it is perhaps a misconstruction in your brain. Or maybe it’s in theirs.

Take note.

And although these days, the concept of carrying pen and paper has been replaced by more modern digital note-taking devices. The same message applies.

Don’t just make a mental note.

Make a physical one.

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