How reliable is our memory?

I have a rubbish memory at times.  I can recall things that happened months or even years ago, but often can’t remember what happened yesterday.  There are also incidences where someone recalled something that happened when we were all younger, but I remember it differently, or not at all.  According to Sheila Marie Orfano’s TED talk this is because as we form memories, we interpret visual information influenced by our own previous experiences and unconscious biases, and when we recall it we tend to reshape it in either a more positive light, or negative way, depending on our own feelings about the memory. Typically recalling with embellishment instead of the original experience.

The Rashomon effect argues there is no singular, objective truth to memories, offering different but equally conceivable versions of the same event. It is often recited in trials to discredit testimonies of eye witnesses. It can also explain the impact on public perception of national or global events.

In 20 years’ time will we remember this pandemic as a time when communities came together to support each other and clapping on our doorsteps for the NHS?  Or will we remember it as a time when we were restricted by movement, being kept away from our loved ones, or getting angry about those who seemed to have ignored the health guidance?

When we hear from certain generations they recall times in “the good old days” and how things were better than they are now. Is that actually true or do people recall memories through rose tinted glasses? Are there those who are predisposed to look at life in an overly optimistic view? Are there those who do the opposite?  Who is to say which is the real truth, or maybe they all are?

If someone tells you their version of the truth of an event, given their own biases and experiential influences, it may already be a version of the truth, and add the listeners experiences and biases, by the time the story has been retold a number of times, does it bare any resemblance the original?  It’s a bit like playing Chinese Whispers where a simple message is whispered from person to person along a line of people, then the person at the end of the line retells the message they heard to see if it was the same as the original message. Of course there are those in the line who might deliberately change the message in order to change the outcome.

In the same way there might be some people who change what they believe to be the truth either to show things in a better, or worse light, either for them or others.  Do people remember things in a deliberate way to block out having to remember the actual truth?

Sometimes people embellish the truth simply because the truth is boring and they want to bring some excitement to the story.  There’s a difference between an out and out lie verses making a story more attractive by adding fanciful detail.  Some embellishment can be harmless as its only intended to make the story more interesting rather than having an intent to deceive. 

The truth hurts when it makes us confront something we have denied, or leaves us feeling exposed to our own failings, but isn’t that how we learn, or is it better to hear a version of the truth?


One thought on “How reliable is our memory?

  1. Surely the truth is always best as long as its not told hurtfully?

    Funny how us and our siblings all remember our childhood slightly differently 🤔


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