I used to think of human memory as an organic computer hard drive. In that view memories are stored as they happen, and the act of remembering any particular memory would bring it up from your hard drive.
I found it comforting to think that all the things that happened to me were stored away and could be retrieved if I was just able to dig deep enough. That who I was was a product of all the memories I had ever accumulated.
Others have described their memory like a filing cabinet. I guess my view was influenced by growing up with a computer, but the two ideas are similar.
And it turns out they’re both horribly flawed representations of how our brains store memories.
All my life, people have told me I have an excellent memory. I've just turned 26, and I still have memories from my very early childhood. Maybe “good memory” runs in my family? My grandma has told me stories that happened over 70 years ago when she was still a child living in Italy.
But in reality, both mine and my grandmother’s childhood memories are probably complete fabrications. Not that either of us are lying about what we recall.
What exactly is memory?
Memory is a physical thing in your brain. It’s made of chains of proteins that connect brain cells (neurons) to one another. Scientists have even found that by giving animals a drug that prevents these protein chains from forming in the brain, animals don’t make new memories.
In fact, age-related forgetfulness has been tied to a reduced amount of these memory proteins in the brain.
Okay, so how does memory being a physical thing relate to it being unreliable?
Well, the same drug that inhibits new memories from being formed can also erase very specific memories as they are being recalled. And this has been tested in humans.
What’s going on is that each time you remember, you’re rebuilding the memory. The protein chains are literally taken apart and rebuilt during remembering, just like they are when you're first making the memory. Each time you remember something, you’re really making a brand new memory that isn't the same as the original.
What you’re doing when you remember something from years ago is reinterpreting it in the light of what else you know today.
It turns out that every act of recall physically rewrites the memory in our brains. That means the more times you remember, say, a certain event, the more times that memory is rewritten and subject to change.
Clinging to memory is like clinging to mist.
You really cannot trust the accuracy of your own memories, even when lives are at stake. The vast majority of convicted criminals later exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted largely based on eye-witness testimony!
You can even create false memories of traumatic events that never happened by engaging in some creative visualization.
This is our lot in life.
Some may find it depressing, but I also see it as liberating.
Our memories were never the accurate storage devices we thought they were. Knowing the truth can help you reevaluate your expectations of yourself and others. Back when I believed the hard drive analogy was accurate, whenever I encountered evidence that something about a memory I had was false, I made a lot of negative assumptions.
Sometimes I assumed I’d made a wrong observation to begin with, so I would belittle my ability to pay attention. Sometimes I assumed that pieces of the memory were corrupted and lost during storage. Maybe if I had PAR files I'd be able to repair some of my memory flaws.
Other times I assumed that people were lying to me. Or worse, if they didn't remember something the way I did, I thought they didn't care enough about me to accurately remember stuff involving me. That particular line of thinking left me feeling needlessly hurt.
Realizing that memory is so much more flawed than most of us believe is freeing.
Whatever *I* am, it’s something more, not less, than the content of what I remember.
Just in case you’re particularly unsettled by the fact that your memories aren't safely filed away in your head, I want to point out that if a particular occasion or thought is very important to you, you can write it down.
Unreliable memory is a big factor in what makes writing so enjoyable for me. When I don’t write what I think, my insights, my a-ha moments, and what I learn, there’s no guarantee the memories I recall later will be permanent or accurate.
Writing also allows me to revise. I can refine my ideas into something more coherent than anything that ever actually lived in my head.