Why You Can’t Trust Your Memory and What to Do About It: Memory and Trauma (Part 1 of 3)

In my last post, I could have told my story about the Legend of Write or Die with more certainty. With fewer “maybes” and “might have beens”. The truth is, I really can’t remember the entire conversation all that well. I only really remember bits and pieces. It happened years ago and I’ve only recalled the memory a handful of times since then.

But even if I had played the scene in my head over and over again every day since it happened, my memory of the conversation still wouldn’t be great. Why?

Because when you remember something that happened, you’re not remembering the original event.

You’re remembering the last time you remembered it.

Memory isn’t like a video recorder. Neither is it like a read-only file that your brain opens, reads and closes every time you remember a story. Memory is more like a working document. When your brain opens the file, it revises the episode like an author revises a novel: keep, cut, add and rewrite bits. Then it saves the document, overwriting the previous file. Without track changes.

So. How does this work?

Into the Brain

[In case you’re not familiar with how the brain works, have a quick read of brain basics in text symbol pictures.]

The moment you experience something, a webby path of neurons and synapses in your brain crackles with energy. A lightning bolt flashing across your mind. This is your brain laying down a trace of the memory, like drawing a dotted-line pattern on a whiteboard with an erasable marker. The first impression of the memory is called encoding.

Each time you recall the event, your memory of it changes. Your brain reconstructs the memory by stringing bits of information together based on expectations and biases: your current context, stock knowledge, previous experiences, and attitude. It’s like drawing a continuous line over the dotted one and including points that weren’t there before; the line deviates from the original pattern in some places. The original marks are erased. This happens every time you remember that experience.

Your brain also physically changes with that memory. In the rewrite process, the new path of neurons and synapses are formed out of proteins. These proteins are the ink in your marker.

When you sleep, your brain consolidates the memory. This is when your brain strengthens the synapses all along that webby memory path. It does this by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters coming from axons and growing new dendrites with more receptors. This is like drawing lines using more ink – you really color that thing in.

The memory eventually goes into long-term storage – sooner for some people, later for others. Much later (again, in your sleep), your brain reconsolidates the memory. It retrieves the memory from long-term storage and strengthens the synapses even more.

Draw, erase, draw, erase, draw, erase.

Read this piece by Richard Mohs on how human memory works for more detail and real pictures.

One thing to note is the risk of spontaneously producing false memories (a phenomenon called confabulation). It happens while you sleep. Your memory is most unstable during the process of consolidation and reconsolidation, and this is when your brain can make you think you experienced things that didn’t actually happen to you.

I had a very strange and random epiphany recently. When I was in college, I shook Dave Brubeck’s hand – our university orchestra had played with him. Imagine! It was such an honor. He must have been seventy or eighty at the time, but his hand was a soft as a baby’s! I have been telling this story to anyone who would listen for the last twelve years or so. But just this year, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t done this at all. It had been one of the violinists who had done it and told me about it later. So now my story is not as exciting – I only saw Mr. Brubeck from the viola section. My deepest apologies to Violinist Friend and all of the victims of my confabulated memory.

The Case of the Legend of Write or Die

Let me take my retelling of The Legend of Write or Die as an example of how memory works and why you can’t trust it.

Rewind to, say, 2011. I’m in New York. I have a great, high-octane, one-of-a-kind job. I am thinking about reviving my failed writing attempts in what leisure time I have. I’m on the verge of attempting my first NaNoWriMo – a Dear Friend has just introduced it to me and I’m excited. Imagine that the original text file of the memory reads something like this:

October 28, 2011. Dear Colleague and I spoke yesterday afternoon on the sidewalk just outside of Rothman’s. It was cold. After we talked about my session on financial regulation and hers on entrepreneurship, we got to the subject of writing. I told her about NaNoWriMo, which was going to start soon, and that I wanted to be a writer. She told me that her fifteen-year-old sister had this crazy need to get her stories down on paper or she would explode. Her sister had written at least fifteen entire stories. I felt bad because I had never finished anything and I never felt that overwhelming need to write before.

Let’s pretend that eight months later, I remember the incident. The context is different. I’m trying to write a post on a blog I could never maintain regularly, but writer’s block is keeping me from getting past three sentences. I’m wallowing in feelings of low self-worth. And I’m extremely stressed out with my day job. Basically, I’m feeling overwhelmed in life, useless as a writer and impotent as a human being. At this time, construction has just started on the façade of our building.

Dear Colleague and I were taking a break from work sometime last year, just outside of Rothman’s under the scaffolding in front of our building. We were talking about our sessions, then got to talking about writing. Her younger sister wrote and finished stories, and had this burning need to write. I felt horrible and useless because I had never finished anything and I never felt that way before, and only real writers feel that way and I was thinking that I could never become a real writer.

Fast forward to last week – November 2014. It’s real life with a fresh memory. I’m trying to write a post. I’d left work the year before. I’m in a different country and climate. I’m feeling a little lost, but optimistic. A million things have happened since the original event. Two big ones in this context were that I’d finished a 113,000-word manuscript and regularly maintained a blog (this one) for a few months. Wins. It’s the middle of NaNoWriMo 2014 and I’d just gotten set ablaze by Write or Die the night before. I’m well above my word target and feeling good. I pull up the memory, and this is all the file has:

Dear Colleague and I were taking a break from work one day, just outside of Rothman’s. We got to talking about writing. Her younger sister wrote and finished stories and had this burning need to write. I felt bad because I had never felt that overwhelming need to write before.

Right. That doesn’t make for a good story at all.

For the Story

I need more of the memory. So I scrunch up my eyes, look up to the ceiling and try with all my power to remember more details. My ever-helpful brain does a search and fires a barrage of information at me to help. I have bits of information and memories from those three action-packed years with my old employer. I also have thought scraps collected over the past twelve months from pages and pages of blogs and conversations with people about writing and that overwhelming need to write. Into this mix I toss in some objective and honest analysis of how I was really feeling at the time.

I want to be honest, but I really can’t remember details exactly. But brain and I need to write, or we’ll explode!

So this is what I end up writing:

I think it was three years ago in Manhattan, under some sidewalk scaffolding on the gray pavement of East 54th Street, when I had an uncomfortable conversation with a Dear Colleague. We were taking a break at our “open air office” next to Rothman’s Steakhouse. It was either ten at night or sometime in the middle of the afternoon. Our conversation drifted from conference programs to writing. The conversation might have taken place during NaNoWriMo 2011, my first sorry attempt at writing a novel.

I gave up early on that one with a measly 1,288 words of complete nonsense. I had tried to uberpants it but failed miserably. It was definitely years before I had this crazy notion of seriously writing a book. I couldn’t even write more than 300 words of anything on a normal day. My brain was full of CEO, finance minister and economist names.

Dear Colleague was talking about her sixteen-year-old sister who wrote. Her sister had written things – fully finished stories. Her sister had this drive to write – a crazy need to get her stories down on paper. It was as if she would explode if she didn’t. The story went something like that.

The conversation was uncomfortable because I was a little jealous. Here I was, a 30-year old writer wannabe who talked big about the dream but never did anything about it. But I wasn’t jealous because I couldn’t finish writing a story. I was jealous because I didn’t have that drive to write. That desert-stranded thirst to tell a story. A thirst that wouldn’t be quenched until my plot had played out on paper. But Dear Colleague’s sister did. At the age of sixteen. It was impressive. What was I doing with my life?

Rethinking Truth

One issue is this: in recounting the Legend of Write or Die, did I lie to you?

I made up the “original text file” above for illustrative purposes. Really, though, I don’t know exactly what happened during that conversation. My brain filled in some the gaps for me; I filled in the rest with speculation. The conversation might, in fact, have taken place in 2010. Maybe I was exaggerating – maybe I wasn’t filled with jealousy, but admiration. Did I lie to myself?

Last week, I wrote to Dear Colleague (proof is in the FB message). She doesn’t deny that we had spoken about her sister and her sister’s writing. But I’m not sure if she remembers the conversation as I related it in my last post. This is my comfort: at least the story’s essence still stands.

When I was in high school, I was made to watch the film Rashomon in a class called “Theory of Knowledge”. Sadly, I don’t recall much about story, but I remember its essence. Different people saw the same event and recount very different stories. The tag line of this legendary Kurosawa film goes (as I saw it on this 2009 American re-release trailer of Rashomon):

One crime. Four versions of the truth.

Memory is fallible. So doesn’t this make each person’s “version of the truth” valid? (Though telling the truth to another person is a whole different story.) Does this, then, make perception reality? Is reality truth? What is truth, really?

But I don’t want to go into that here. This line of thinking is best pursued in conversations over wine or coffee.

Four Practical Tips

These four things might help in daily life:

Keep (more) reliable records. Keep a journal of the things you really want to remember. Write it down the day it happens. (I read this from somewhere – I forgot from where, exactly, sorry). Use audio recorders and take pictures or videos for things that matter.

Figure out a way to maintain clarity in chaos. Most of us surf and swipe through a tsunami of information every day. More information means more bits and bobbles that your brain could potentially weave into your memories, whether it’s accurate or not. Choose what you read, watch and experience based on what’s really important to you.

Be aware of the fallibility of memory and respect other peoples’ perspectives. You might find yourself in an argument or debate with another human being (anyone – your better half, a friend, or a client) about a past incident. Remember that your recollections and the other party’s are valid. Assuming that you’re both being honest, allow for the fact that a world of other things have influenced your respective memories. Cite relatively more reliable evidence (see bullet point above).

Maintain a positive attitude. Because memory is so fallible, the original event might not have been as bad (or good) as we might remember. We can’t control how our brains rewrite our memories. We can’t control everything happens to us. We can, to a certain degree, pick what information we absorb. But the happy fact is that we can control our attitudes. The spirit with which we approach any given situation is our choice. Maybe if we want more happy memories, we should maintain a positive attitude more often.

And on that note, I leave you with something from Dave Brubeck that might facilitate a positive attitude. (Yes, we did actually play this with him! I promise. I swear.)

3 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Trust Your Memory and What to Do About It: Memory and Trauma (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Reading “flow” (csikszentmihalyi) right now. Echoes what you say about how the mind processes information and basically fills in the gaps and how it’s all so subjective. And I didn’t realize you played in the gtown orchestra!

    1. Oh cool, thanks! Is it this: “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” from 2008? You didn’t go to any concerts!? We played the Christamas masses too, if you went I was there. But maybe you didn’t see me – Jax the last chair viola sitting behind all the strings, just in front of the brasses 😉

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