Sunday, March 12, 2023

Remember by Lisa Genova

I recently read a Blinkist summary of this book and was fascinated by the following section:

“If you’re of a certain age you might remember January 28, 1986, when a space shuttle careened high in the blue sky over Florida and burst into a ball of flames. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger left no survivors and was witnessed by millions on live television.

Twenty-four hours later, a pair of psychology professors at Emory University asked their students to jot down an account of what they were doing when they either witnessed or learned of the explosion. Two and a half years later, the professors followed up with the students and again asked for a personal account of that fateful January day. For almost every student, the memory had changed.

When the professors revealed to the students the discrepancies between their accounts of the day the Challenger exploded, some of the students insisted that their current version was correct and that the version they jotted down within 24 hours of the fiery launch was flat wrong. Surprised? Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal.

Our episodic memory may be powerful and vivid, but it’s probably wrong.

First, while our attention can capture an incredible amount of sensory information, it can’t catch everything. We’re limited by our perspective and guided by our interests and expectations. Then, as we translate the sensory data into neural activity, our beliefs and biases again play a strong hand. Finally, in order to distill that neural activity into a stable, retrievable pattern, we edit creatively. We omit some details and add others under the influence of our imagination, assumptions, and the suggestions of others.

After this point, the memory goes into storage. If left untouched, the neural connections that make up the memory physically recede. Gaps appear. We forget.

Retrieving the memory doesn’t preserve its accuracy either. We recall the neural pattern and fill in the gaps with invented information. What’s more, we reinterpret the remembered moment in the context of our present circumstances. We create a narrative to jibe with our current opinions and mood, effectively reshaping yesterday for today.

Each time we remember, we rewrite and save the amended version, and the previous version is gone. Our latest version of memory feels real to us because it’s the only version we have.”

This helped me understand the frustrating experience when talking with someone and realizing that the story they are telling today is different from what happened or what they said previously. As the above material points out, the story we tell ourselves can change over time. If we are angry with someone, the story may get worse over time. We will be fully convinced of “facts” that never happened.

If you have ever kept a journal and then read it many years later, you will find that what you remember now may be different from what you wrote down.

My big take away is to realize that memory is not always reliable. It may be just an invention.