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Okay, maybe that's
not convincing. Kids tell stories to themselves; they get confused about
the nature of reality. But you're an adult and you know the difference
between fantasy and reality. Well, adults get confused, too.
instance, the experience of memory researcher Donald Thomson. Thomson
appeared on a television show about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
Not long after the show aired, he was picked up by the police and placed
in a lineup. A distraught woman identified him as the rapist who had attacked
Thomson had an
unshakable alibi--the rape had occurred when he was on the TV show. The
victim had been watching Thomson on TV just before the rape, and had confused
her memory of Thomson with her memory of the rapist.
Daniel L. Schacter links this case with what he calls "source memory,"
the ability to recall precisely when and where an event occurred. The
rape victim remembered Thomson's face, but misremembered where she had
People tend to
think of memory as being like a tape recorder or a camera, capturing what's
out there. That doesn't match with the current thinking of most memory
researchers. Their research implies that your memory of an event is something
you construct from bits and pieces: from what you saw and heard and experienced
and felt at the time; from things people told you afterward; from suggestions
and thoughts and implications, all filtered by your attitude, by who you
are. Daniel Schacter writes that "memories for individual events
resemble jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from many pieces" and
suggests that all rememberers normally "knit together the relevant
fragments and feelings into a coherent narrative or story."
discusses this idea in a way that's extremely compelling. Loftus writes
about "story-truth" and "happening-truth," terms she
borrowed from Tim O'Brien's Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried. Happening-truth
is the bare facts--what happened at such and such a time. Story-truth
is the story you tell yourself about that truth, the details that you
fill in, the Technicolor version that helps you make sense of the world.
In story-truth, you may unconsciously fill in a little bit here, adjust
things a little bit there--in the same way that a fiction writer consciously
edits and recasts a narrative.
Both the authors
of this article keep journals--and both of us consult them every now and
then. Recently, the Exploratorium needed true stories of personal encounters
with weather for a book. Paul dug out his journals to read his entry from
the day one of the two ropes of rock climbers that he was leading up Mount
Hallett in Colorado had been hit by lightning.
Paul and his
partner, Martin Meyer, had reached the summit and had descended to a lower,
safer position to wait out an afternoon thunderstorm in a wind shelter.
The second rope was still on the cliff when lightning struck the summit.
Paul remembers being on the summit after the storm cleared and greeting
the second rope of climbers as they arrived. He clearly remembers a smiling
but shaken Mike Bolte climbing up the summit gully. Mike had been hit
by some of the ground current from the lightning and had a burn mark on
his hip to prove it.
When Paul went
back to his journal, he was shocked to discover that his recorded account
of the event differed from his memory. According to the journal, Paul
and Martin had taken turns waiting for the second team on the cold and
windy summit, alternating with periods of warming up in the wind shelter.
Martin, not Paul, had been at the summit when Mike reached it. Paul first
saw Mike when he arrived at the wind shelter. Paul's memory of the event
is false. How could that have happened? Well, Paul is a good storyteller.
And it makes a much better story to be at the summit greeting the climbers.
The story-truth, the way that Paul wanted to remember the event, was stronger
than the happening-truth, the bare and unsatisfying facts. But better
story or not, Paul was startled to find out that his journal and his memory
After reading his
journal, Paul was convinced that his memory wasn't always trustworthy.
But that doesn't mean that all of his--or your--memories are inaccurate.
Most of the details that Paul recalled matched the account in his journal
quite closely. Human memory can be, in many circumstances, very accurate.
But research has demonstrated that memory can also be prone to distortion
and is occasionally untrustworthy, a discovery that many find unsettling.
writes about some of the reasons that people are disturbed by her research:
"Human beings feel attached to their remembered past, for the people,
places, and events that we enshrine in memory give structure and definition
to the person we think of as our 'self.' " If we accept that memory
spills over into dreams and imagination, then how do we know what's real
and what's not?
In Total Recall,
the psychic mutant asks Arnold Schwarzenegger why he wants to remember.
Arnold answers, "To be myself again."
It is easy to
think of yourself as the sum of your memories--the end product of all
that you've ever experienced. But after doing research into memory, we
find that it makes sense to reverse that statement. Your memories are
the end product of all you've ever thought and done, filtered through
your perceptions and opinions. Who you are is shaped by your memories,
and your memories are shaped by who you are.