Do We Remember What Really Happened?

Do We Remember What Really Happened?

What’s your earliest memory? How far back can we really remember? And how accurate are the events we recall? In his book ‘Remembering our childhood: how memory betrays us’ (Oxford University Press, 2009) Karl Sabbagh, in an attempt to answer these questions, discusses, and refutes the claims of the ‘recovered memory’ movement, a psychotherapy movement that during the eighties and nineties was in the midst of several controversies. In doing this he lays bare the history of psychotherapy, and its most widespread methodologies while discussing and analyzing some of their outcomes.

According to one of its Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s definitions, memory is “the faculty by which things are remembered; the capacity for retaining, perpetuating, or reviving the thought of things past”. Therefore, what we call memory is a series of intermingled dynamic processes where information travels in multiple directions. When a stimulus reaches a sensory register it sets up a chain reaction in which information can travel among different ‘compartments’ where it can be stored or else, forgotten.

And as such, memory is not homogeneous, and more than one type of memory can be distinguished. Madeline Eacott a psychologist who works on mechanisms of long-term memory, has been studying the differences between two types of memory – semantic and episodic: (1) episodic memory is what makes up the bulk of people’s early memories – specific places, people, and events; (2) semantic memory concerns memory for words and concepts and general knowledge about the world.

memory process 1

It is accepted that there is an inflexion point in memory development at the age of two. Two hypotheses try to explain why this is so: (1) one is that the brain is still developing and the proper functions of the nervous system for acquiring and retaining memories are not in place; (2) the other is that we are very limited in what we can store and recall until the age at which we develop language: “(…) language would help in some way to ‘fix’ a memory in the brain, so that if you can describe something in words you can remember it better than just storing separate images and sounds, (…)”. Therefore, as mentioned by the psychologist David Pillemer “deliberate attempts to recall an early childhood event years later may fail because the imagistic of childlike memory is incompatible with the adult’s purposeful reconstructive efforts”.

There can be several reasons: medical, legal, criminal… that might bring somebody to attempt to recover memories of past lived events. However, being a dynamic process, memories are continually influenced by a multitude of factors, especially those ones somebody recalls of a particular event; among these factors we find the level of stress to which the individual attempting to remember was subjected at the time of the event’s occurrence:

efficiency of memory

Within this context, it is very interesting the concept of the ‘seductive detail’: a specific happenstance, which although not particularly significant, just by being interesting, might be conducive to recall certain facts but not others. It is for this reason that psychologists point out that, in therapy or while conducting surveys, “communicators should choose their words very carefully, because the minor details that a communicator reports might be as influential as information that has genuine significant value”. Therefore, (…) leading questions could contaminate or distort a witness’s memory, (…), and likewise have the potential for the establishment of false memories that could, or could not, be enhanced by the power of imagination.

False memories “are more than merely incomplete, inaccurate, or imprecise memories. (…) False memories are for things that didn’t happen at all, and may have been created or planted in some way”. The power of imagination refers to the fact that if somebody actually believes has experienced something that person is going to show physiology consistent with that belief; (…) people have all sorts of reasons for believing strongly in events from their past, many of which have nothing to do with whether the events happened or not.

Additionally we have to be aware that people from different cultures are bound to have different perceptions of the world around them, being those particularly apparent in autobiographical accounts. Especially striking, although by no means unexpected, are those ones present among eastern and western populations: Asian cultures place great emphasis on (1) social relations and (2) moral rectitude, while western cultures focus on (1) positioning of individual roles, (2) individual preferences, and (3) individual feelings.

All in all, we can assert that “memory is fallible and the longer ago a memory refers to, the more likely it is that errors will creep in”. At the end, “it seems (…) the ability to remember accurately anything about our personal past can sometimes be no greater than chance”.

Additional References:

Loftus, E.F. 1980. Memory: surprising new insights into how we remember and why we forget. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., Reading, Mass., xv, 207pp.


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