Your Memories are Lying to You


The grass, apparently, is always greener wherever we’re not. I haven’t lived in Queensland, Australia, for almost 10 years now. But I remember it fondly. Especially when winter hits, and in New Zealand everybody stops ageing for several months.

Unfortunately, memories often lie, and if I wasn’t such an incorrigible blogger, I’d have little evidence of that sad psychological fact.

But I am, and I do.

Ten years ago—in another blog, in another land, and in another time—I wrote this:

I’ve had enough of Australia. I miss the ecological safety of New Zealand. It seems that I panic at every midnight sound now. If I hear a rustle, I imagine a snake might be slithering amongst my clothes. (You’d think this would motivate me to keep them off the floor, but apparently not.) Every spider I see carries the fear of death should it get too close, and Australian cockroaches are bigger than horses. One attacked me last night. I’ve also had notoriously bad luck with ants during my Australian residence.

I used to routinely see Rainbow Lorikeets in the trees, as common as the NZ sparrow, but since I moved only 20 minutes away, there’ve been nothing but scary, ugly, poisonous harbingers of death.

Australia scares me. Every time I hear a scratch…I think I might die.

Let’s not be distracted by my hyperbole habit. The material point is that the chlorophyll content of Queensland’s grass was just as bleak in metaphor as in reality.

The antiquated perception of memories was that each memory is like book shelved in a subconscious and dimly-lit wing of our brain library, and whenever we need to recall one, the relevant memory is taken off the shelf, opened, and re-read—its content as constant and reliable as when it was newly created and shelved there.

Except it’s not. It doesn’t have the immutability of a printed page. Modern psychology now acknowledges a memory is more like a Wikipedia entry—it gets tweaked, updated and reinterpreted by every user that encounters any wing of the brain library, at all. Users like Hindsight, External Influence, and Emotional States.

The extent of the edits and re-writes vary, of course. Maybe the motive you had behind an action you made wasn’t exactly as you recall it. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, almost the entire memory could rampant confabulation. Neither is a conscious manipulation or deliberate deception, on your part. It’s just how memory works. There’s a good reason why, in legal scenarios, eye-witness testimony isn’t given much credence without supporting material evidence.

That other grass isn’t greener because of good light or bad luck.

It’s because, as an objective reporter, our memory sucks.


1 Comment

  • Deborah Makarios
    11 Mar 2017

    And this is why when several witnesses to a crime all tell the same story, it’s a sure sign they’re in cahoots and cooked it up between them.

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