I was asked if I thought individuals can block memories of traumatic events, and if not, could certain triggers cause these events to resurface. Although the question was about PTSD, I realized it had implications for how memories make life possible and difficult. In this three-part series, I’ll explore the effects of memory on our present and future.
The Accuracy of Memories
The storage and retrieval of memories is a necessary part of our daily living. Unfortunately, memory is the ultimate trickster. It’s more beguiling than Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. More deceitful than Putin denying Russian soldiers are crossing the Ukrainian border. And as mistaken as your partner was when catching you in a fib.What we thought happened changes with each retelling of a story.
How often have you been in a discussion or argument where you disagreed with what you knew was “the truth? “No, that’s not what happened,” you said, scratching your head and thinking “How could he get it so wrong?” If you didn’t want to argue, you might have said, “Well, maybe you’re right,” with all the conviction of a devout Iraqi Christian converting to Islam when faced with execution if he doesn’t.
Science and Memory
Science shows stories change with each recounting. One subtle modification may not change the story’s overall theme. Unfortunately, the mind never leaves it at one; it retells it endlessly, until the last version is as accurate as the last story told in the children’s “whisper game.” Everyone sits in a circle and whispers the same short story to the person next to them. By the time the last person hears it, an innocuous occurrence at recess becomes something terrible that occurred in the teacher’s lunch room.
Few people purposefully lie or change the words they hear. Rather, our trickster mind finds it necessary to change some elements to make them fit with what it needs.
Unfortunate Outcomes of Faulty Memory
Unscrupulous and incompetent professionals in the 1990’s developed the pseudo-science of “recovered or repressed memories.” They maintained memories hidden for years deep in their clients’ minds were accurate portrayals of terrible events. The accusations destroyed many lives until hard evidence proved most were fabricated. It wasn’t that people lied, but rather, the mind modified the truth to meet its needs.
The phrase “the new normal” is used to describe changes in weather, traffic patterns, and eating habits among other things as our world changes. What was considered normal in the past has changed and instead of the present considered an aberration, it’s now the new normal. In many ways, the phrase applies to memory. With each retelling of the story—either reliving it or expressing it to others—the events become transformed, and what was an elaboration is now the “new truth.”
The problem with both PTSD and personal conflicts is each new rendition of “the facts” is thought to be set in concrete, but actually their foundation is composed of Jell-O. In Part II I’ll explore how the mind changes the past, and in Part III I’ll offer suggestions for what you can do to cut the legs from beneath our unreliable minds.
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