Not everything that we believe we remember is actually real. It could be a memory illusion. We are only just starting to appreciate how flexible or ‘plastic’ human memory actually is. That may sound weird but it is true. This particularly applies to early childhood memories where what we believe we remember may actually be a pastiche of parental recollections, anecdotes told around the supper table that we absorb as part of our childhood but were actually too young ourselves to remember. We are remembering the story as though we remember the event.
Remembering Your Birth
This explains, for example, people who are convinced that they remember the exact circumstances of their birth, even though there is no way that they could actually do so. Listening to mother and other people who were there repeating their anecdotal description of the event may create a feeling of having been there but this is actually an illusion.
The infant brain at birth is not sufficiently developed and nor are the senses that provide it with the information that it needs to make lasting memories. Most scientists generally agree that it is rare for a child to form real memories before the age of about 3 as before then the brain just does not have the wiring to do so. That, however, is a topic for another article.
Repetition Can Distort Memories of Events
Distorted repetition of events with embellishments from other people and the addition of post-event information makes the actual recollection of the original event less accurate over time. Class reunions and family get togethers can bring up all sorts of different recollections of specific events and arguments over who really did what and what actually happened. This has probably happened to you, if you think about it.
The High School Reunion
Have you ever wondered why, when you get together with old school classmates after 10 years or more and you get talking, your memories are so different to theirs? Memory is a very personal thing in that it is our brains which determine which bits of information are important and should be remembered and which should be discarded. Those decisions are based on our perspective at the time. What seemed desperately important to you as a thirteen year old at school may have been totally insignificant to other girls and boys in the class. Your recollections of what happened at school that year are likely to be very different to those of your classmates as your perspective was unique to you.
At reunion time everyone gets talking and reminiscing and those different perspectives get added to your own recollections of what happened that year. Later on you may find that your own recollections have absorbed some of this new information as you think over what you have heard and add the bits that make sense to you. At the next high school reunion your own story will have become more elaborate and distorted by this additional information.
False Memory Syndrome
A more serious and controversial aspect of this is something called False Memory Syndrome or Recovered Memory. This is when memories are recalled under hypnosis usually as part of adult psychotherapy. These memories may be distorted by the hypnotherapist to suit their own agenda or may be implanted through autosuggestion. This can be dangerous in that, for example, someone may subsequently ‘recall’ instances of abuse that never actually took place. Freud pioneered the use of hypnosis to discover forgotten or repressed memories. While a skilled practitioner can no doubt find out a lot, it can also be subject to abuse and not all the ‘memories’ uncovered are actually true.
If you are interested in exploring the concept of false memory and how our memories can play tricks on us, you might like to read a book called The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory by Dr Julia Shaw, published by Random House. ISBN 9781473535176. This book is highly readable and gives some fascinating insights into how our minds work.