Squishy Memories: Part II-Why Does the Mind Change the Past?
In Part I of this series, I wrote our mind’s creation of memories is unreliable since it has a hidden agenda. In Part II I’ll offer reasons why we should trust memories only a little more than we do a politician running for office.
The Effects of Homeostasis on Memory
The body’s physical need for “homeostasis” can offer an understanding of how our mind works. Homeostasis is the body’s attempt to correct a great imbalance by going overboard in the opposite direction. One example is a convergence of “helper” cells surrounding a foreign body in an attempt to kill or isolate it. Another would be the body’s reaction not to give up fat during a severe diet “believing” starvation is about to happen. Apologies to my biologist friends for the simplification.
If the body physically tries to counterbalance threats to its existence, why wouldn’t the mind do the same thing? And if so, how does it do it? Possibly through the recalling of memories.
Recalling of Memories
In hospice I served a woman in her eighties who, as a new student teacher, was ridiculed by other teachers. She repeated her story for two months, often intensifying what happened and how she responded or what she should have done. Although the humiliation happened more than sixty years ago, she described it each time as if a video was playing in her mind. But with each retelling, I felt a film editor was hidden in the folds of the brain, changing what was told to create a more pleasant ending.
Was it just the “faulty memory” of a woman close to her death? I don’t think so. I’ve found as people come closer to dying, their words and thoughts are unadorned. They have no ego to protect, nor hidden agenda. There’s a mind-boggling honesty I experience with people who are dying. My interpretation of her struggle with the past is it was her mind’s attempt to regain homeostasis; an effort to regain a self-image lost decades ago.
Other Memory Distorting Factors
Distortions of the past caused by the mind’s attempt to regain homeostasis make the accuracy of memories questionable. Complicating it even further are the filters we place between experiences and memory. A person who felt discriminated against her entire life will view an occurrence differently than someone who has a privileged life. The video of college fraternity members singing a racist song is an example. You might ask how anyone could view it as anything but abominable. But the event looks very different for someone whose ancestry is proudly traced back to slave owners. Does that mean bigotry should be forgiven? Absolutely not. But realizing why they participated in the event becomes a bit more understandable.
Reality is a relative concept. We neither perceive events objectively nor retrieve them through clear lenses; they come to us through our history and current needs. Memories are not scientific, objective phenomenon, but rather tactics for making the past better. And, therefore, as when adversaries meet, truthfulness can be sacrificed for necessity. For both enemies and the mind, there is a need to win either in the present or retrospectively.
So the next time you’re in an argument about what happened in the past, don’t automatically dismiss differences. The results of experiments on memory indicate nobody got it completely right. In Part III, I’ll suggest some ways of living with memories while minimizing their negative effects.
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