Thursday, August 4, 2011


What will he remember about that trip?
Last night, I fell asleep thinking about memory and a potential blog post. Not surprisingly, I doubted that I would remember it this morning. But I did, so here you go. There are three tidbits of information bouncing around in my brain, and I'm trying to reconcile them.

First up: my friends Joe and Mary recently educated me on the fallibility of memory. It seems that human memory, especially for details, is terrifically inaccurate.

They told this story to illustrate:
A couple, while stalled in traffic, witnessed the stabbing of a bicyclist on a parallel road. By the time the passenger got through to 9-1-1 a minute or so later, traffic had moved and they could no longer see the crime scene. While talking to the operator, the driver and passenger could agree on only one fact: a bicyclist had been stabbed. They disagreed on everything else: physical descriptions of perpetrator and victim, clothing type and colour, colour and type of bicycle. 
Can you imagine the implications for legal proceedings?

I've also been told (in my Psych 101 course, oh, so many years ago, so this is subject to the vagaries of memory over time), that children remember the things and moments that are exceptional. So a child will remember the one time you totally lost your cool and spanked him, but will forget the innumerable times you breathed deeply and sent him for a "time out." How unfair is that?

Finally, oh, crap, what was the third one? I just had it! Oh, yes. A personal observation: when I hear an answer that doesn't jibe with what I expect or want to hear, it doesn't "stick." For example, I can't remember how many times I asked my mother to share the story of my own birth before I finally remembered her answer. I realized that it wasn't a happy story. Her central memory was of my father leaving her at the hospital so that he could go back and close the windows as it was starting to rain. And I think she also said something about being in a hall listening to all the other women crying out in pain.

It didn't answer to either of the things I selfishly wanted to know: what was childbirth like (what might it be like for me?), and did she love me as soon as she saw me (was I worth the pain?).

And - oh! - I've just had a tiny epiphany. This phenomenon is really the result of cognitive dissonance (another thing I learned about in Psych 101): that feeling where conflicting "truths" vie for brain space. The human tendency is to give weight to one, and to discount the other, often based on which truth is more attractive or comfortable, or to adapt our belief system to new information (much less likely).

I think cognitive dissonance also has a lot to do with repressed memories which one might think would be all the more memorable for being outside the "usual," as per my second point.

I'm still left wondering two things:
  1. How reliable are my memories of my own youth?
  2. What will my own children remember?
While I have reason to doubt the specifics/details of memories, I do think that the feelings aroused when we reflect back are quite reliable. I have no foundation for this belief - haven't heard or read anything about it.

What do you think? Have you experienced any of these "failures" of memory?


  1. Ah yes... memory is a very strange thing. Sometimes I hear your stories (or those from the other sibs) and think, I remember it happening a little differently... I guess we remember based on our own perspectives, and the emotions/relevancy in the event or words. Guess that is partly why working on forgiveness through our lifetime can be a healthy thing.

    My memories of when you were born...I remember being delivered to Stoughtons' down the street to stay over night, I think they had 9 or 10 of their own kids. It is kind of a murky nervous memory (I've always been a home-body) The next day (? could have been several days back then?)I remember Mom and Dad coming home with you all wrapped in pink and white and they were beaming ear to ear. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, etc. :) I must have been just old enough to really appreciate a new baby (much more than I clued in to Andy or Harvey) and I wanted you all for myself...walked you in the baby carriage, etc. Your crib was in my room and I felt completely priveleged and in love. Mom and Dad doted on you too.

    I have even more memory details of Christine, maybe because we were all kind of in transit at the time, and because I was again a little older and more involved with stuff. I was just so happy to have sisters!!

    I have more vivid memories of childhood, teen and university days than of the last two decades, maybe because life continued to increase in complexity, and nowhere to file it all!! (I did inherit an impossibly small cranium you know...)

  2. Thank you for that, Pat. It makes me happy. :-)


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