Don’t trust your memories

I came across an interesting take on the False Memory Syndrome. While we all experience memory failures from time to time, false memories are unique in that they represent a distinct recollection of something that did not actually happen. It is not about forgetting or mixing up details of things that we experienced; it is about remembering things that we never experienced in the first place.



In 1988, while in therapy, the journalist and feminist author Meredith Maran came to a startling realization: her father had sexually abused her as a child. It was a shock to her, a repressed memory she had spent most of her adult life oblivious to. But at the age of thirty-seven, she confronted her father and also told her family what had happened. Meredith’s news horrified her entire family. Her father immediately denied having done anything. Some family members sided with Meredith. Others sided with her father. The family tree was split in two. And the pain that had defined Meredith’s relationship with her father since long before her accusation now spread like a mold across its branches. It tore everyone apart.

Then, in 1996, Meredith came to another startling realization: her father actually hadn’t sexually abused her. (I know: oops.) She, with the help of a well-intentioned therapist, had actually invented the memory. Consumed by guilt, she spent the rest of her father’s life attempting to reconcile with him and other family members through constant apologizing and explaining. But it was too late. Her father passed away and her family A True Story of False Memory, throughout the 1980s, many women accused male family members of sexual abuse only to turn around and recant years later.

Similarly, there was a whole swath of people who claimed during that same decade that there were satanic cults abusing children, yet despite police investigations in dozens of cities, police never found any evidence of the crazy practices described.

Why were people suddenly inventing memories of horrible abuse in families and cults? And why was it all happening then, in the 1980s? Ever play the telephone game as a kid? You know, you say something in one person’s ear and it gets passed through like ten people, and what the last person hears is completely unrelated to what you started with?

That’s basically how our memories work. We experience something. Then we remember it slightly differently a few days later, as if it had been whispered and misheard. Then we tell somebody about it and have to fill in a couple of the plot holes with our own embellishments to make sure everything makes sense and we’re not crazy.

And then we come to believe those little filled-in mental gaps, and so we tell those the next time too. Except they’re not real, so we get them a little bit wrong. And we’re drunk one night a year later when we tell the story, so we embellish it a little bit more—okay, let’s be honest, we completely make up about one-third of it. But when we’re sober the next week, we don’t want to admit that we’re a big fat liar, so we go along with the revised and newly expanded drunkard version of our story.

And five years later, our absolutely, swear-to-god, swear-on-my-mother’s-grave, truer-than-true story is at most 50 percent true.

— Excerpt from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson

“It is essential, at this early stage, to distinguish false memory from the more familiar idea of memory fallibility. Memory, as everyone knows, is an imperfect archive of our experience… In its most general sense, false memory refers to circumstances in which we are possessed of positive, definite memories of events – although the degree of definiteness might vary – that did not actually happen to us.”
(Brainerd & Reyna, 2005)

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