How Much of Memory is a Lie?

One of the most interesting recent developments in the study of memory has to do with the revelation that there is no absolute “truth” to our memories. In short: every time we remember something, we essentially re-write that memory with a new version of it. The new version is inflected — sometimes substantially, sometimes subtlely —with who we currently are, our concerns, our anxieties, our biases, and expectations. There is no authentic version of our past experiences stored in some incorruptible neurological hard drive. We are always revising our pasts, whether we mean to or not. I’m particularly flummoxed by the implication that the memories we revisit most — whether because they are cherished moments, or because we’re tormented by unfinished business — are therefore the least reliable in terms of authenticity, and the most changed by the way we repeatedly turn them over and over in our consciousness like a set of cosmic worry beads.

In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s REALLY, the two characters located in the present moment — the Girlfriend and the Mother — get pulled into memories of their relationships with Calvin. Those memory scenes aren’t situated as “flashbacks,” that is, they don’t purport to show a factual replay of something from the past. Instead, they seem to be echo-y, full of ripples from the present.

NPR’s show Radiolab ran a special show on memory and its relationship to truth: “Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process — it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added.” Listen to it here:


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