Why is it my two sisters and I recall the past so differently? For example, we will never agree on who broke off a piece of the living room chandelier in our childhood home. What we agree on is that it was one of us.
Studies on memories tell us that just as we can’t step in the same river twice, our memories change by the act of recalling them. Each time we retell our memories, they are modified to some extent.
Case in point. When I tell my kids about walking three miles to school, struggling against the elements, hail and biting winds, etc., one of them will object. “Mamma, every time you tell this story, the school is further away, and the weather worsens. Now you have no mittens!”
Research conducted by Northwestern Medicine confirms that the more often you recall a memory, the less accurate it is. In other words, every time you take a memory off the memory shelf in your brain, you put it back just a tiny bit different.
Recalling the chandelier incident, I’m not remembering the actual moment. I’m remembering the memory of the last time I told about it. It’s a bit like a game of human telephone. A word whispered and misheard time and again grows less precise with each retrieval.
That’s a little unsettling. So, my most treasured moments — the ones that comfort me —are the ones that have changed the most? Maybe it wasn’t my sister, Stella, who was tossing a ball that broke mamma’s chandelier. Maybe I did it. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Jórunn who was the good sister. I could be wrong about that too. This version makes me feel a bit better.
Logically, why wouldn’t memories be subject to the same deterioration processes as everything else in the world? Yet, it seems like a cruel joke to think that my most cherished memories are revisions. I should stop telling them so what remains has some remnants of authenticity. Erma Bombeck was correct, “no one ever said life was a bowl of cherries.”
If my sisters and I rehash the chandelier event again, I will not argue my innocence. Nor can they. All of us are relying on faulty memories. Memory inaccuracy, like aging, is unavoidable. Unlike computers that put data away for safe-keeping, our brains betray us when it comes to memories.
Neuroscientists’ work shows that remembering is about reconstructing events. Sometimes we reshape our memories to accommodate new circumstances. Psychologists point out that we suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We remember the hurt others caused us but forget our contributions.
Time does not heal all wounds. But each time we tell of painful memories, we re-experience the pain again and again. Cherished or distressing, memories are a revisionist history at best.