False Memory

One of the delicious ironies of memory is that, even when our recollections are utterly false, they still feel true. Consider this wonderful tale from the upcoming season of This American Life (I've loved the first two episodes, by the way):

Or as Proust put it: "How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory...The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years." That bleak view of memory jives with lots of recent work looking at the cellular reconsolidation of memory, or how the act of remembering a memory changes the memory itself. (To make a long story short, remembering also requires protein synthesis.) This means, of course, that the more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.

Now you see why the police go over your story, again, and again, and again, and again, until they get a story they like -- and then they have you sign their version, and there is no record of your original story.

By Grizzled Cynic (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

Attributed to Benjamin Disraeli is the comment, "Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen." But it is not a phenomenon that requires years of gestation. Experience in front of juries has caused me to borrow from Disraeli's observation to offer the instruction, "A jury sees more than it remembers, and remembers more than it sees. "

By jay french (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

Does this mean we should stop studying for exams?

By Michael Woods (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

There is some wonderful writing on this topic in "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)," one of my favorite recent pop-psychology books. The phenomenon Jonah is talking about here turns out to explain a lot: the daycare scares of the 1980s, the huge numbers of people who think they've been abducted by aliens, and, as the Grizzled Cynic up there notes, police tactics in getting a confession, even if it's false and coerced. Seriously, the book is well worth reading if this kind of thing interests you. No, I'm not the author.

That bleak view of memory jives with lots of recent work . . .

I think the word you're looking for is "jibe".

By Mr. Language Person (not verified) on 14 May 2008 #permalink

Grizzled Cynic is onto something. Legal presentation is frequently about fashioning a compelling central narrative. Was it Otto von Bismarck who quipped that the two things you don't want to see being made are sausages and law? But it is also easy to become overly cynical. See Daniel Schachter's book, "The Seven Sins of Memory." No, I'm not the author nor am I acquainted with the author.

Interesting, though I'm left confused.
Also,your last statement 'that the more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.' sounds very paradoxical, though I'm not sure how one defines 'remembering' . Don't we all try to remember more, what we want to remember better ? Can you throw some light ?

By Aprameyan (not verified) on 16 May 2008 #permalink

This was a wonderful, concrete example.

Is there any significance (meaning, any known pattern) to the husband's remembering so many essentially irrelevant details -- the leaves on the tree, the stitching on Jackie's clothing?

For me these echo the precise but irrelevant details in urban legends -- e.g., you can never get closer than to the source of the story than "my ex's cousin's next-door neighbor," but you learn that the main character was eating a BLT sandwich from a paper sack on a park bench in Chicago on May 19th.

Or as Proust put it: "How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory...The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses,