false memories when trying to remember things too far back in time

I created a nice thread with nice wording and explanation but I lost what I posted, and what I wrote is not committed to the database due to a technical problem. :slight_smile:

It is ironic that my thread is about human memory and psychology and I now cannot exactly remember what I just wrote short time ago. :slight_smile:

My experience: When I try to remember things that happened too long ago, for example 7-8 years ago, I remember things that did not really happened.
Or they happened but my memory of the events deviates from what really happened. (I guess this is a common issue.) But the deviation is too large.
Because the deviation is too large, when I try to do a reality check with other people, I tell them about completely irrelevant things which they were involved in it as well.
Due to the irrelevance, they worry about my mental health. I keep them asking about the events in a very random way. This further causes worry.

I am aware that I can get information about this on the web. However, I would like to get experimental knowledge from you. :slight_smile: I intend to consult various expert on this. But as I said, I would like to get experimental knowledge from you first.

Well there has been a lot of neurological evidence in recent years that suggests that with episodic memories (i.e. memories of specific events that happened to you), every time you recall such events the memory gets stored anew.
So it is likely that the more times you try to recall some event, and the more vivid you try to make the recollection, the more likely that incorrect details may start to spill in.

And there are ways to hasten this: show someone a fake photograph of an event that never happened to them and many people will start to not only believe the event happened, but be able to “remember” lots of details.

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever had a significant false memory. The closest I have is sometimes not being 100% sure whether I’m remembering something that actually happened to me or was a dream (but it’s only some trivial thing if that happens…e.g. “Why did I write that nonsense sentence on the whiteboard yesterday? Oh wait that was in a dream…I think”).

So if you’re often having confused memories perhaps you should talk about it with your doctor. ETA: Oh, but if it’s 7-8 years ago I don’t think it’s much cause for alarm.

A bunch of people at my high school skipped the afternoon that Star Wars was re-released in the 90s. In the lead-up to the more recent Star Wars, I assumed that this event was caused by Episode 1, not the re-release of 4. Interestingly enough, all the other memories I had of that afternoon of the school being suspiciously empty were far more consistent with the event happening in my sophomore year instead of my senior year, but I had no solid grasp of exactly when Episode 1 came out, and had completely forgotten about the re-release Special Editions. So in my mind, I had conflated one thing with another, and it wasn’t until I talked about this with HS friends on Facebook given the recent Star Wars movie that I was corrected and realized that my memory was faultily stored.

It could be that most of your “problem”, if there really is one, is that you have unrealistic expectations of how human memory works. The fact you used the term database, albeit jokingly, gives us a hint.

From our current POV[sup]1[/sup] in early 2016 for 7-8 years ago you’re talking about 2008 or 2009.

From around then I can tell you which house I lived in, what jobs I had, what car I owned, and roughly what projects we were working on at work.

Meantime almost all of daily living from then is a total blur. Did I take a vacation that year? I don’t know. Was that the year the first tree fell on the house, or the second tree, or was that the year before or after? I have no clue. I do clearly remember two different incidents in two adjacent years where trees fell on the house. I could even tell you a bit about the circumstances & aftermath. But nothing more than the gist of the story.

That’s normal human memory. If you expect to remember 8 years ago in more detail, the problem isn’t your memory, it’s your expectations.

Memory is also strongly cue-driven. We remember more than we can freely recall. In that year I was working as a software developer. If you showed me a project I was working on from then I could immediately recognize my code versus somebody else’s & pretty quickly recall enough to explain it and the overall project to you.

Likewise if you showed me a dated theater concert ticket or sporting event ticket. If I didn’t go to too many such events I could probably recall the concert or game & what happened there. At least in broad brush outline. But without the ticket I go nuthin.

But all that’s recall assisted by the outside cue. Sitting here today I can’t recall a specific project I can identify as being from 2008-2009 versus before or after. Nor a particular play, concert, or sporting event. I know I went to some pretty regularly, but which? No clue.

If you give us some examples of the kinds of things you think you recall from then vs. how you expect to recall them vs. how your friends recall them we can give you a reasonableness check on your memory.

For sure if this bothers you then you should seek professional help. But don’t be surprised if the issue turns out not to be your memory at all.


  1. Shouldn’t that be TOV = Time of View? :slight_smile:

The one time I was tested on a 20 year old memory, my recall was pretty good. I went to hear a lecture. Ironically, the speaker was a psychologist who was studying–and debunking–false memories. About fifty people came armed with noisemakers and simply did not allow the speaker to speak. I wrote a friend of mine the next day describing what had happened. He saved my email and on the 20th anniversary he asked me to write a description of it again. I did and he sent me what I had written 20 years earlier and it matched pretty closely.

Elizabeth Loftus? She testified for the defense in a lot of trials where people were tried for molestation of adult children decades after the fact, based on recovered memories, and Loftus testified on how unlikely is was that memories could be completely inaccessible for decades, then recalled clearly and reliably, and on the flipside, how easy it was to create false memories. She was very unpopular with a lot of groups, from the Satanic ritual abuse people, to the alien abduction people, to the “I just now remembered my father murdered someone 30 years ago” people.

The act of writing your recollection the day after the event was very powerful. The process of rehashing and organizing your thoughts then was a major factor in them being recallable in similar form today.

I’m not much surprised your recollection closely matches the 20 year old email. What would be fascinating is to compare both of them to a video of the event itself.

My expectation based on some reading in this area is that most of the distortion happened as you were experiencing & mentally “recording” the event in the first place. That’s where the gaps and misunderstandings and confabulations get recorded and their inconsistencies smoothly & undetectably papered over.

We’re doing the sexual-abuse-of-children-by-the-church-and-other-intitutions thing in Vic.Aus right now. We had a case reported in the paper where the poor guy is distressed that he didn’t remember being abused until the police told him that he had been, based on the perpetuator, 30 years later, selecting his name from class lists of pupils he had taught last century.

That’s the kind of thing that’s in the papers all the time. More interesting was a character who reported that, on the clearly documented evidence, his memory of how he realized that he was color blind (a life changing fact for him), was completely wrong in almost all the details.

Both examples of important facts, illustrating that even important things are badly remembered.

Remark to the OP: I wouldn’t be worried about forgetting things (forgetting things is normal). I’d be worried about you worrying about forgetting things. Worrying is not very normal. Why are you worrying?

Memory is a funny thing. I can clearly remember things that I later learned never happened, and I have no memory of major events in my life that really did happen. My memory has always been poor, compared to my older brother who has almost total recall of childhood events that can be independently verified.

One thing I know is that I sometimes have very vivid dreams, and somehow those dreams become part of my permanent memory, as if they really happened. When I told all this to my doctor he asked me a few basic questions, like where I was born, and who the current president was, and I knew both of those answers so he said not to worry about it. My mother died of Alzheimer’s so I am still worried about losing my memory for good…

Like most things, there is not a thin black line between being crazy and being normal: there is actually a broad fuzzy line. I myself used to daydream about flying, until one day I found myself at the top ot the stairs, ready to take off.

I have the opinion that jumping off a cliff with the belief that you can actually fly might be life endangering, so I made the conscious decision not to daydream about flying anymore.

I also have the experience of being so hurt and confused in a relationship breakup, that I actually believed things my ex was telling me – a situation that came very close to getting me locked up in a psych ward. (Fortunately I had family who came and effectively stood bail for me).

What I’m saying is that it’s not normal (in our society) to believe your dreams, or your halucinations, but it’s not abnormal either: it’s just part of the range of human experience.

I worry about Alzheimer’s myself: I hope my kid is old enough to look after himself when I go. Kay sera sera.

If this upsets your faimily, tell them to deal with it. If it upsets your friends… well, I paid a lot of money to have a friend I could test my crazy beliefs on, but since I could afford it, it was worth it.