Memories: How much can we control them?

As I’ve moved into my 50’s, and interact with family and friends, I’ve noticed that quite a few of my contemporaries have memories that are in some cases “selective” and in others “completely made up”.

One example is that friend of mine was consistently one of the worst athletes in just about any of the pick-up sports that we played, such as basketball, tennis and American football. He wasn’t particularly athletic in terms of running speed, jumping ability, etc. either. But now decades later, he speaks of those days as if he played sports well, suggesting that he was one of the better players on the field or court.

Another example is my ex-, who seems to recall many things related to child-rearing that I know she didn’t do. When speaking of the past, she constantly recalls many sacrifices she made that never occurred.

Now, neither of these examples are of people that readily lie, and I would never debate either of them on their memories, because I think that they legitimately believe themselves and they are not hurting anyone.

But do they really believe themselves, or are they aware that deep-down, their memories have been self-adjusted to make themselves feel better about themselves? Also, if we actually can control our memories, then it’s not lost on me that I may be doing the same thing, but not realizing it.

This stuff comes up every now and then when I reminisce with my wonderful wife of 40 years, whose memory is generally much better than mine.

My advice is to consider the possibility that your memory is the inaccurate one.

(I just noticed that you did consider this, in your very last sentence.)

I also know people who do this, heck I catch myself doing it sometimes, and I think it’s selective memory. You naturally want to remember things more as you wanted them to be versus as they really were.

Deep down I think they know they are embellishing the past, but if it makes them feel better about themselves and doesn’t cause any harm, I let it slide. However, if they make things up out of whole cloth that I know for a fact are untrue I might challenge them and see if they hold their ground or change the subject.

Most people are unaware of how malleable memories are. They’re not a recording that you can bring back perfectly every time. Every retelling, even to yourself, influences how you’ll retell/remember it next time. And you can deliberately put a spin on what you tell others and eventually forget which parts are spin and which were there in the original.

I’d say much like preserving anything else biological and perishable like a piece of fruit or a book, we can only control how slowly it degrades, not whether it degrades. All our memories degrade to some extent.

That said, there is a huge range of how much control we have over that. I think some people’s personalities are such that their memories start degrading instantly. The person who’s ego can’t take losing for example will pick themselves up and immediately start going over how the other person cheated and they really won. One extreme example of this behavior should still be very fresh; said person invented the memory that they were cheated and lost before the competition even happened and started complaining about it in the media.

The more extreme the memory distortion, the less likely they are actually aware of it. As an extreme counter example, say you competed in a timed race that was filmed years ago. You have your time, know you came in 4th, you have the video. If you dedicate to keeping an accurate recollection of that day, watch the film and read your written time once a week, when asked about it 40 years later you’ll remember a lot more clearly. Most of us don’t do that of course.

I think people with a lot of guilt or mental problems will have less control over their memories than people who don’t have anything subconscious to hide or not like about their past.

My ex has long-running behavioral problems and essentially casts off (or gets fired) and makes an entirely new cohort of friends every 5-10 years. She told me a story of one of her former boyfriends from memory; of course he was cast as a horrible person and her the victim. Told me the break up story and all. I had access to her FB page and through names/photos/dates I found their actual conversation history and read it. When I divorced her from our relationship years later she was shocked and claimed she’d never been rejected by anyone before.

The weird thing is that she had (and I read) a lengthy detailed written time-stamped record of her having arguments with an ex years earlier where he literally spelled out that he was leaving her, why, that he didn’t miss her or want her back, and not to contact him. AND she also had the bill for an ambulance ride she required after she ODed at a party trying to make this guy jealous and get him back, plus messages from numerous people at that same party criticizing her behavior that night. Seems you’d remember that right? Nope… even with a written record she’s forgotten the whole thing. She could correct her memory if she wanted to, but I can see why she wouldn’t want to.

IMO, it’s about repetition. Certain dramatic experiences can be buried and reappear at unexpected moments and in surprising detail, but I think other stuff fades if you don’t recall it every so often. And, of course, you’re eventually remembering your impression of having remembered. In the best of cases, you compile the details that come to mind over the years and you stick to the facts. Or not, if your goal is to tell a hell of a story.

I’ve noticed that I have a dim memory of some things that happened during ruts in my life: jobs, partners, friends, etc. Wrong turns and dead ends along the way.

This article may be of interest.

I’m often surprised at just how malleable and oft times inaccurate memory can be. I fell victim to the Mandela Effect just the other day. After watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my daughter, I told her of the (unfair) ridicule Sally Field received when during her academy award acceptance speech, she gushed,“You like me! You really like me!”

Daughter found the speech on YouTube and said, “she didn’t actually say that.” I told her she was crazy. “I watched the speech live and that’s exactly what she said.”

Except, she didn’t. When I watched the clip, Sally actually said, “This time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”

Oddly, I later watched an interview with Field and she mentioned being embarrassed when she said “You like me! You really like me!” So, apparently Sally herself remembers the false memory.

I read an article sometime ago that theorized when we remember something, we’re not actually bringing to mind the actual event. What we remember is, the last memory we had of that event. It can be similar to playing the game of ‘Telephone’ in that each time we remember something, it changes slightly. For some of us, human nature may cause us to subconsciously alter the memory in a manner that coincides with our personality or preference. Once our mind is satisfied with, “Yes, that’s exactly what happened.”, that’s usually the memory that’s embedded.

Just a theory.

Memories are way, way less accurate than most people believe. We reconstruct memories when we access them - we find bits and pieces stored in our brains and fill in the gaps using our current understanding, things that influence us, our mood, what we want to remember, etc. But this isn’t a passive, read-only process. After reconstructing memories, we “put them away” again, we essentially reconsolidate the new memory which includes those influences from the recollection, like what our current mood is, our motivation for remembering, and anyone else’s suggestions might make it back into these memories. It’s quite perverse, but the memories you remember most frequently are the ones you would expect to be the best - but those are actually the most subject to changing via this process. Although it’s not quite that clear, because they’re also the most rehearsed, and therefore we may remember more subtle details about those oft-remembered memories, but we may also be altering them away from reality the most, too. It’s rather complex.

It is entirely possible that the people involved don’t know their memories are inaccurate - they may believe it 100%. I myself recall times when I embellished a story I told enough that the embellishment became what seemed like real memory until someone corrected me about it. It’s also possible that you don’t remember it as well as you think.

Elizabeth Loftus did pioneering work in this field (particularly in relation to eye witness testimony and also the idea of repressed memories).

There’s a concept of naive realism that everyone tends to have. They think that their brain is an objective interpreter and recorder of reality. But it very much isn’t - the brain does a very complex job of synthesizing little bits of complicated information into a cohesive whole, but our biases and cognitive flaws very much taint how connected that interpretation and memory is to the real thing.

At the risk of sounding like I am bragging (which I am not,) I typically have much better memory about long-ago events than other people around me, which has occasionally led to quarrels when someone and I disagree about something that was said or happened many years ago (in which I know I am right but don’t have the video/audio evidence to prove it)

But I am definitely aware that as time goes on, the memories will get blurrier and less reliable, which is why I started writing down many memories write now in my journal when they are still clear and known to be true, so that I can correct myself in the future by re-reading what I wrote down for posterity.

One area in which memory can not only be recalled well but also instantly verified is in sports. I can typically recall, very easily and accurately, the score of a particular football game many years ago, in discussions on sports message boards, and quickly Google search things to verify as well.

I’m interested in how this process relates to trauma. I’ve noticed a subset of individuals with traumatic backgrounds who start misremembering and fabricating more trauma until victimization subsumes their entire personality. I speak of my mother, but also others with extreme mental illness who seem to process everything through the lens of traumatic memory.

I know my mother has some real trauma in her history, but her narrative has changed so much and she’s completely fabricated so much of my childhood, that it’s difficult to know what she really experienced. She has dozens of alleged traumas which she talks about constantly, to the point of obsession. Some are outright false, which I know because I was there. Others have corroboration from siblings and are almost certainly true. Some appear to be exaggeration, and some…I don’t know. My Aunt calls it “trauma salad” because it comes out incoherently and apropos of nothing. It reminds me of my schizophrenic uncle and what it was like talking to him. It seems to get worse as she ages, like a big old ambiguous trauma snowball. I think it’s easier for her to focus on traumas, real and imagined, then to take responsibility for her own behavior.

Likewise, one of my former relatives had elaborate traumatic memories of her father murdering people in front of her, but there is no evidence that ever occurred and her siblings remember no such thing. She recounted specific events to me that probably didn’t happen, and she also believed a dead man was visiting her every night from hell, in case you think I’m not giving her a fair shake.

In both cases, the trauma is very real to them, causing them full-blown PTSD symptoms, but the events are unsupported by the evidence. This is why I sometimes have difficulty taking people’s public accusations at face value. It’s possible to think you’re telling the truth and to feel victimized when you aren’t and haven’t been. It’s also why I don’t assume people with implausible stories must be telling malicious lies. It’s just as likely they are delusional.

Of course this freaks me out about my own memories, as I know memory is unreliable, but what I can say for myself is my story and memory have always been reasonably consistent, I’ve never made any attempts to fill in the blanks, and what I remember is corroborated by people who were there, including, oddly enough, my mother. For some reason amidst all the falsehoods there are certain events she remembers with chilling accuracy, though she fails to see how damning they are. There may be details I remember that are inaccurate, I’m sure, but the big picture has not been lost. So that’s as good as it gets, I suppose.

I think this might be a case of you remembering the parody of Sally Field’s remarks than the original remarks themselves.

Because I got into an argument with someone once who insisted Sarah Palin actually said “I can see Russia from my house” when it was actually Tina Fey parodying Palin on Saturday Night Live.

Memories are in fact very malleable in at least two ways:

  1. Every time you recall a memory, you essentially re-remember it again, which is open to suggestion and reinterpretation. Especially if any part of your memory was confused; as soon as the mind finds an interpretation that seems to make sense, that is often what you “see”.

  2. As pointed out upthread, memories degrade but you can control which parts degrade. Not usually consciously, unfortunately, as the result can often be focusing on the negative. I only really have negative memories of high school, but those memories are at least months apart…clearly I’m missing a lot of stuff that was positive or just neutral.

Along with everybody else I really believe my memories are accurate. Although there is lots I can’t remember, what I do recall seems accurate. And I have one anecdote as evidence.

Sometime in the 90s, a psychiatrist came to McGill to talk about repressed memories. About 50 women came equipped with noisemakers and simply did not allow him to talk. After a half hour of trying the organizers of the talk simply gave up. I have a close friend who is heavily involved in the False Memory Syndrome and sent him an email the next morning describing in some detail what happened.

On the tenth anniversary, he wrote me to ask me to describe that night again. I did as well as I could and it concorded remarkably well (although with most details missing) with what I had written immediately after. One detail I still remember is that a woman sitting next to me (not using a noisemaker) remarked that she hoped that I would not judge the repressed memory believers by these actions. She hoped in vain.

I’m in a writers group with one of the most famous proponents of FMS and I have had to bite my tongue. One of her books outright states: “If you have no memory of abuse, but you’ve experienced then you probably were abused.” This is followed be advice on how to “recover” these non-existent memories. The damage she’s done to families is arguably catastrophic.

I had, for some years, an utterly clear memory of the night, when I was a small child, when one of our cats died.

In the memory, my parents had gone off to the vet with the cat hoping she could be saved, and I knew this was happening and was sitting on the living room couch, waiting fot them to get home.

I mentioned this to my mother once, and she said it hadn’t happened. My father had taken the cat to the vet, she had stayed home, I had slept through it. I had not been left sitting on the couch alone waiting for them to come back.

I argued with her about it. My considerably older sisters would have been in the house; maybe she’d thought it OK to leave me with them. Maybe she thought I was asleep, but I’d woken up and heard them talking, and gotten up and come down after they’d left. It was such a clear memory, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t happened. An utterly clear physical as well as emotional memory, I could still feel just how I’d been sitting on the couch –

sitting on the couch with my back up against the back of the couch, and my legs bent at the knees over the front edge of the couch cushion, just as if I’d been an adult or close to it.

And I realized that however clear the memory was it wasn’t physically possible. I was three years old when that cat died. My legs weren’t long enough to sit on a couch like that; they’d have had to be straight out in front of me if my back was against the rear cushions.

In the years after I realized that, the memory got a lot blurrier; what I have now is a memory of having that memory, not the thing itself. But, at first, I could feel myself trying to rewrite it, so that I’d remember my legs being in a possible position. Maybe because I’d already told my mother that I’d realized she must be right and why, or maybe just because I was aware of it, the rewriting didn’t re-convince me.

I think it’s interesting that in a sense the memory you describe is more “true” than what actually happened. The memory was about feeling helpless to stop a loss, a very big deal for a small child. That’s the core part your brain hung onto. In a weird way, events as they actually occurred wouldn’t have really fit the narrative.

Yeah, I think that’s part of it.

I think I may also have felt that I shouldn’t have slept through it. I should at least have woken up and been with that particular cat mentally though I couldn’t physically.

[ETA: I don’t mean that I’m blaming myself now for not waking up when I was three years old. I mean that I may have felt that way about it when I was three.]

I was in a school play in 8th grade. It was significant to me, but you don’t care about the reasons why.
I have told others about what the play was and my part in it.
Earlier this year I was at my parents’ house and they got out a box of old papers and stuff. It included the program from the play. It didn’t fit with my recollection of the play. Apparently, my parts were in a subplot and in my mind the subplot was the whole play.