So speaking of celebrity encounters in NYC, one time I was waiting for a date in front of a restaurant near my apartment in lower Manhattan, when Lucy Liu walked up and stood next to me. She was waiting for someone as well and we exchanged pleasantries.
Oh wait… that never happened. In fact, once I impulsively related this story to a group of friends. As I did, I had a growing feeling of uneasiness as if something was wrong. Then one of my friends said, “hey that’s the story I told you!” It then hit me that I was remembering her experience. I was so mortified that I tried clumsily to cover up for my humiliation.
I had had the actual experience of waiting outside that same restaurant several times to meet dates. I had had actual experiences of encountering other celebrities in NYC. I was obviously familiar with Lucy Liu from television and movies. The presence of my friend who told me that story probably triggered a temporary conflation of all of these to produce a false memory.
How can this happen? Well it happens all the time but we are not usually made aware of it in such an embarrassing fashion. You see, we do not recall events like a tape recorder. Rather our memories are like notes scribbled along the margins of our brains, associated by proximity or by little arrows. When we try to retrieve a memory, we do not hit “replay,” rather we check our scribbled, fragmented notes and try to piece the events back together as best we can. Our memories are not recordings, but are rather more like docudramas that we recreate from scraps of information each time we invoke them.
These little docudrama memories are never recreated exactly. They are full of errors and omissions. Not only are they constructed incompletely, but they are colored by our biases, fears, hopes, and needs at the time we recreate them. Even worse, each time we recall them, our scribbled notes are updated with these changes and this modified version forms the basis of our next recollection. It’s like basing your documentary of JFK on a previous documentary. Our memories are like the message in a game of telephone, changing and morphing each time we invoke them. If my friend had not been present to point this out about Lucy Liu, I may well have further integrated her story more solidly into my own memories.
As marvelous as our memories are, these things happen. Anyone, like our President, who thinks they have “one of the great memories of all time” is simply not paying close enough attention. And it’s hard to question our very memories. After all, they form the basis of who we are and all we think we know. To question our memories is to question our own competence, our own sanity, and even the very foundation of our self identity.
Yet we must be skeptical of memories, particularly our own. Most of our memories are not as falsifiable as a misremembered encounter with Lucy Liu. There is no one to call us out of most of the memories that form our experiences and define us as who we are. Most of our memory glitches aren’t exposed on a witness stand. We recall certain things about how our parents treated us but not other things. We recall a friend insulting us when it was actually a comment made on a television show. We clearly recall a pivotal experience in our life that was in fact only a recurring dream.
I noticed that when I gave lectures, I told an abbreviated story that was a composite of a number of other stories, just to illustrate a point. Before too long I could no longer recall the individual stories but only the abbreviated composite. Each time we retell a story, that replaces our old memories and our memories change and morph over time.
You can experiment on yourself to test my claims. Just start telling some story about yourself – make it somewhat plausible. I guarantee that before too long you’ll have trouble recalling that you made this up. Before much longer, and you’ll become absolutely certain it is completely true. You remember it clearly after all, so it must be. That’s how your neural network works. You cut you bleed. You repeat experiences through stories or dreams or whatever, and they become memories. They become your self.
Even more important than recalling events is the problem of remembering feelings. Our recollection of feelings is extremely malleable. We can quickly grow to hate a dear friend or spouse largely because we retell stories over and over again that gradually deteriorate into a “powerful, unforgettable recollection” of how terribly we have been treated in the past. If we are disposed to think badly of someone, all our memories will be colored by that lens. Perhaps, a good indicator of the person we are now is the tone we impart upon the docudramas we recreate to recall events and how those events made us feel.
In fact, studies have suggested that having a “great memory” makes you less happy. People with so-called great memories tend to never let go of any slight or insult. They only get angrier and more unhappy as time goes on. I submit that their memories are not actually that great and that they likely have a tendency to create a more unforgivably offensive version of their memory each time they recall it.
Lucy Liu reminds me that a little humility when it comes to the fallibility of our own memories is a good thing. Maybe it would make Donald Trump a less angry and spiteful person if he were not quite so confident that he has “one of the great memories of all time.” Or, maybe angry and spiteful people just cannot help but create memories that reinforce their anger and spitefulness.