Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Persistence (Or Not) of Memory

I read this Huffington Post article today, and it mentioned a topic of particular interest to me:  the unreliability of human memory.  As a chemo patient, I deal with "chemo brain", which can disrupt memory as well as focus and reaction time.  I've lost some memories, or clarity of memories, about things that happened immediately prior to my previous chemo treatment in 2003.  But while I find that frustrating and disappointing, I don't find it as disturbing as the artist in the article found it when he realized that his memories of his aunt weren't accurate.  That's because I know my memory is fallible.  I know there's stuff I've remembered incorrectly, and other stuff that never happened at all.  I don't place such reliance on my memory that it disturbs my sense of self to find that it's wrong.

The first time I can recall realizing that my memory wasn't entirely trustworthy comes from a childhood recollection.  When I was young, around six I think, my family went to Arkansas to visit my great-uncle, who had a dairy farm.  We arrived in the evening and I was tired, so I fell asleep.  I dreamed that there was a buffalo in a pasture next to my uncle's farm.  For years I believed that dream was reality, until one day I happened to mention the buffalo to my mother and she gave me a "What are you talking about?" look.  There wasn't any buffalo living next door to my uncle's farm. 

This knowledge of the weakness and malleability of memory is further confirmed when I try to recall my childhood and recognize how many of my memories are missing the presence of my father.  He did die when I was a child, but I was twelve, so there should be a few relatively clear memories including him.  But my memory, in an effort to reduce the pain of grief, seems to have excised him from occasions where he was undoubtedly present, just as Titus Kaphar's memory added his aunt in places where he wished he'd had her support.

Unfortunately we (meaning Americans of the 20th century) seem to have developed an inaccurate picture of memory.  We don't want to admit when our memories are wrong, because we perceive that represents some fault in us, as if we didn't try hard enough to remember.  Numerous psychological studies have shown that our memories can easily be manipulated, that stress or morals or socio-economic background can affect how we remember things or whether we remember them at all, yet we persist in believing that our memories are accurate and unassailable, as if we are video cameras recording every event of our lives and storing those recordings in impenetrable vaults (don't get me started on how unreliable film and video are as documents of reality).

My own opinion is that we should learn to doubt our memories more.  Perhaps if we stopped holding so tightly to the correctness of our own memories, we might be better able to understand others, to empathize, to let go of rigid beliefs and opinions and accept that the beliefs and opinions of others are just as valid as our own.  Perhaps we'd be less willing to accuse, to insist on our own rightness, to point fingers and try to enforce our rightness on others.  We'd also be more sympathetic to people who do have genuine problems with memory, such as Alzheimer's or mental illness, if we could admit that we all have moments in which our brains betray us.

The next time you get in an argument with someone over whose memory is correct, stop yourself and ask yourself, am I really right?  Or am I just insisting that I'm right because I don't want to admit I might be wrong?  Admitting that your memory isn't perfect doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, that you've gone mad or that you have the onset of Alzheimer's.  It just means that you are human and your brain works the same way everyone else's does.  

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