The Limitations of Memory

The Modern Survival Guide #44

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This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. At least, I think they are… actually I forgot what I was going to say, can we start over? Oh, now I recall — this article is about memory, issues with memory, and how we can address them.

Let’s start with the simple stuff: your memory sucks. So does mine. So does everyone’s (except for those unfortunate few who have an eidetic memory, more commonly called a photographic memory, and there’s some debate about them). Memory is fallible; we forget things all the time and interpret whatever’s left. Put simply, most people’s memory should not be trusted, and that most likely includes your own.

This has major implications in life. For a well-documented example, it’s surprisingly difficult for people to pick a criminal out of a police lineup, and eyewitness testimony has been roundly discredited as a sole viable source of evidence in court trials. A lot of people are shocked when they find this out — isn’t seeing believing? Isn’t a witness a good record? No, not at all. And that includes you.

More specifically, what this means is that most of the events in your life that you remember almost certainly did not occur exactly the way you think they did. Don’t believe me? No worries, mate. Just gather the folks around at Thanksgiving dinner and ask everyone to tell their versions of well-known family stories. See how quickly the stories diverge, and who remembers what.

This phenomenon of multiple people remembering the same event in different ways actually has a name — the Rashomon Effect — and there are many reasons why it takes place, above and beyond the fact that most brains just don’t remember all the details.

One factor is our own perception, and the tricks our brain plays with what we perceive. It’s an interesting fact that, at any given time, you’re not actually seeing (or hearing, or tasting, etc.) everything you think you are. This is because the brain is an efficient organ; it only devotes processing power to figuring out things that it doesn’t recognize. For things it recognizes, or things it thinks are normal, it basically just replays sensations.¹ Put simply, you’re not really living in the “now;” you’re perceiving a recording from several milliseconds ago, and your brain messes with the footage. The trouble is, it’s a feedback loop — you can’t remember what you don’t perceive, so there are naturally occurring holes in your memory from things you “saw,” but didn’t notice.

Another factor is the fact that different people encode memory in different ways. Some people are more visual, some are more factual, some are more keyed to auditory or taste cues. That radically alters the perspective for remembering what happened in any given event.

So that means that if you set your Christmas tree on fire one year, different people in your family will recall the event in totally different ways. You might remember the vision of the tree going up like a roman candle. Your mother might remember the details of how much damage it did, and how much it cost to fix. Your brother might vividly recall the smell of burning pine needles, but just have a blur of what happened during the event.

A third major factor in the Rashomon Effect is that memory is highly susceptible to the power of suggestion. In short, if you expect a thing to happen in a certain way, you are much more likely to remember it happening that way. But you are also more likely to remember events happening differently than they did if you or someone else substitute a plausible scenario for that which actually happened.

Basically, if you are in the process of encoding or retrieving a memory and you receive an alternative idea about that memory, there is a chance that your brain will simply write over the memory with the new information. Certain external factors — high emotional stress, drug use, hypnosis — may increase that chance. It’s creepy, but it happens.

Finally, a fourth factor is the impact of emotion. Put simply, your emotions are a strong indicator in whether or not you remember things. A high emotional state can mean that memories are formed more easily — but by the same token, those memories are likely to be colored by the emotion in question. There is a LOT of research on this subject; there’s a decent summary of some of it here.

There isn’t really a consensus on exactly how emotions impact memory, probably due to the sheer number of variables involved, but the easy conclusion and the one that matters to us here is that emotions do change how we remember things. To return to the Christmas fire example, psychologists would expect everyone in the room to remember things somewhat differently depending on which emotions were most dominant, and what they did as a result of those emotions in reaction to the situation.

Ok, so that’s a quick, dirty, and probably only partial explanation of the Rashomon Effect. You can remember all that, right? And that’s only covering a few types of memory phenomena that take us away from the “truth” of what happened. It’s actually kind of amazing we get anything right at all.

This brings us to our second issue:

Our perception of our sense of self is almost entirely dependent on our memories.

In short, what we are is dependent in large part on what has been done to us, what we have done, and what we think about it.² If we apply what we know about the fallibility of memory, that leads us inescapably to the following conclusion:

You are probably not the person you think you are.

Now, before you object to that too strongly, let me explain the idea here. There are at least two sides to every event — what we think happened and what really happened. What we think happened is in our memory. What really happened is, well, what really happened — the series of events as observed by a dispassionate universe.

Who we think we are is much more linked with what we think happened in our lives than what really happened. If we accept that memory is a highly fallible tool, that means that we are, unavoidably, wrong about a lot of things that really happened. We are living in a permanent state of delusion and so at least some of our self-image is totally, factually wrong.

This has practical implications.

Most likely, nearly all of your friends, family, and acquaintances have a significantly different idea of you than your self-image. This is one of the reasons why eaves-dropping is so often detrimental to our self esteem.

Most likely, you are operating on at least one radically incorrect assumption that is impacting your ability to work with, love, or care for another person.

Most likely, you are working with a personal philosophy or assumption that has been influenced by an event that in no way occurred as you remember it.

Most likely, you have badly hurt someone and do not realize it, not because you’re clueless but simply because you remember the circumstances differently from them.

Most likely, you are someone’s hero or role model because of a situation that they remember totally differently from you.

And so on, and so forth. The possibilities here are as expansive as your life experiences. The point is the same in each case: some aspect of you, your life, or your character is simply not as you think it is because of the fallibility of human memory. The “you” that you see in your self-image is probably not the “you” that walks around in the “real” world, and certainly not in other people’s minds, because your memories of yourself and your actions are at least somewhat out of step with reality. And there’s really not a lot you can do about it.

With that being said, we can draw a few goals and objectives from understanding the fallibility of memory. This is an excellent motivation to forgive and understand each other, for one thing. If everything we think we are and everything we think we know is just a little uncertain, it removes a lot of our excuses to be nasty to each other.³

At the same time, from a personal perspective, realizing that your self-image may be based on a foundation of sand should be a humbling experience. It should, at the very least, be an opportunity and motivation for introspection. It should prompt us to engage with the world a little more deliberately.

Similarly, from a philosophical perspective realizing that our memories might not be “real” makes it very important to establish some guiding principles in life. Think of this like the guy from Memento — it’s simply not possible to know for certain whether your memories are totally accurate, but if you have touch points for guidance in general, it raises the odds of things turning out alright. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to tattoo them on your arm, but still. Having a strong moral code makes it more likely that your actions were as you remember them, because it decreases the odds that you would act differently.

From a practical perspective, the fallibility of memory should be an excellent motivation to write things down from time to time. This is the greatest gift and benefit of a written language — we can write things down so that we don’t have to remember them. Of course, then you have to get the language and nuance right, which is this whole other bag of worms.

And from a lifestyle perspective, this should be a fantastic reason to fact check, ask for advice, use science, and in general reach beyond our own heads for tools with which to understand the world.

We can’t trust memories. We shouldn’t trust memories. Our memories are a fuzzy guide and smudged map in this life. They build us as we build them, and sometimes that means we can go down some weird paths. This makes it extremely important for our personal prosperity and survival to develop capabilities of interpreting the world that do not rely solely on what we remember happening. The universe exists in the real; we should try to do the same.

¹This is one reason why people feel “overloaded” in new situations. Their brains are trying to process something completely new, and are consequently shunting processing power away from other functions. This is also why tourists act so immensely stupid on a regular basis — they’re dealing with a situation where everything is new, and their visual processing is sucking up attention that would normally go to higher decision-making.

²In addition to innate personality traits determined by biology, of course. The exact mix of nurture vs. nature has never been agreed upon, and probably is different from person to person.

³That being said, don’t let people gaslight you. Memories are fallible; that doesn’t mean you can’t draw reasonable conclusions from them.

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Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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