Memory Manipulation and the Current State of Things Past
“Right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.” – Steven Wright
“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” – Rita Mae Brown
“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory” – Mark Twain
Cogito Ergo Error
We can trust our minds, right? We think, therefore we are… and all that. We know that things have happened in our lives because we were there when they did; we remember them happening in just such a way. And we know that things have happened in the world because we read about these events in the newspaper or watched them unfold on the evening news, YouTube, etc. In short, we are the sum of our experiences and teachings – what we think of as empirical knowledge. These experiences must have occurred; otherwise, we wouldn’t be who we are, at least that’s what we like to think.
But, we also [in]voluntarily distort the past in an attempt to reconcile the present state of things and project a more comfortable future. The past is not concrete; it remains fluid because it is nothing more than one version, one interpretation of the way things once were. For instance, in academic textbook publishing, this tends to be the rule rather than the exception. Publishers have political and financial motives, and their agenda affects our perception of national and global history with each new edition.
What I call “The Civil War,” a native Tennessean gentleman might refer to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” This is a viewpoint that I do not agree with, but who am I to say what the southern experience of that conflict was like or how it has influenced subsequent generations? Our grandfathers' interpretation of this seminal event differed, and thus, overtime, my counterpart and I have developed splintered “shared memories” of the Civil War. This is a classic example of a subjective truth, and it affects how we interpret the nature of reality. What we once thought of as fact is slowly rewritten over the palimpsest of time and is dependent upon a number of factors, including, as in the case of our southern friend, geography – which points directly toward perspective. Over time, the current version of the past doesn’t quite match the former… And it doesn’t at all resemble the original. At this point, we begin to deal in facsimile, not fact. More than anything, temporal distance catalyzes this clouded perspective.
Human beings republish their memories in much the same way as the publisher mentioned above. Over time, we delicately carve the incompatible and inconvenient puzzle pieces of our past to make them fit into our present version of existence. We do this to such an extent that, often times, our memories don’t square with the reality of previous experiences, and in some cases, we actually hijack the experiences of others, placing them firmly in our personal memory slots. (Did you make that game-winning layup in 8th grade or did your best friend? Think hard here, dear reader.)
Shouldn’t this cause some sort of existential crisis, or is the fallibility of memory simply a given? Is it possible that we’ve become so accustomed to our faulty cranial Rolodex that we just stopped caring about the truth, or have we determined that truth is such a variable term that we now view it through a subjective lens? Have we totally discarded the nature of truth, and if so, what does that mean for our respective value systems?
At any rate, our memories are shaky at best. This is something we all accept, but rarely consider.
Updating the Software
Of course, memory must be filtered so as to allow for proper cognitive recall. This way, we don’t hop in the car after work and envision every road we’ve ever driven. Rather, we easily remember the route of our daily commute and follow it to our driveway. This is what I like to think of as relevant retrieval, and there is nothing innately inauthentic about it; it’s a survival mechanism that we use to access the essentials quickly and without effort to effectively pattern and navigate our lives. However, sifting through pertinent memory for basic life functions is a far cry from the subconscious memory manipulation with which I’m concerned.
According to Gillian Cohen, author of Memory in the Real World, “Memory is not just a private data bank; it is shared, exchanged, constructed, revised, and elaborated in all our social interactions.” The important words here are “constructed, revised, and elaborated.” We experience an event, fashion a memory, and adapt that memory to suit our egos. If the experience was negative, we alter the details of the memory to lessen the blow and maintain a positive, and in some cases, superior, sense of self. When the experience is especially negative, it is believed that we have the ability to repress the memory entirely. (This is one of only a handful of Freud’s ideas that seems to have had any real staying power.) If the experience was positive, rather than defending our ego, we elaborate in the form of a seemingly harmless embellishment to inflate it.
To this end, memory construction isn’t always about establishing an accurate depiction of a foregone time or even about ensuring authentic retrieval later on down the line. Usually, it’s nothing more than a form of ego protection, inflation, or both. We don’t forget our embarrassments, grievances, or sorrows. We subvert them; we make them work to our advantage. Our minds engage in full-on synaptic origami to protect ourselves from ourselves.
Masters of Deceit
So if we can agree that memory is not only separate from fact, but often times actually serves as its antithesis, and that it is at least partially a human construction, we also have to agree that we have the power to both consciously and subconsciously shift the events that surround us to meet our expectations and desires while simultaneously protecting ourselves from our greatest fears. We tuck ourselves in at night with a patchwork quilt sewn from the fabric of our own naivete. There is no one else to blame for this falseness. We are the masters of deceit, and our tactics work best when they are self-inflicted.
We’re so separated from ourselves that we are constantly creating false memories of both personal experiences and global events. In fact, research shows that false memories can be just as strong, if not stronger than true memory. For instance, the defining moment of the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York was the United States Hockey Team’s dramatic victory over the heavily favored team from the U.S.S.R. in the Gold Medal Game. At least, that’s how people like to remember it. The game in question was really the semi-finals; the U.S. still had to beat Finland for the gold, yet most people confuse the penultimate match against the Soviets with the actual Gold Medal Game, largely because of the political tension between the two countries at the time. It makes for a better story, so that’s become the popular narrative.
In this case, the presence of false memory is an innocuous phenomenon. It’s not that big of a deal that people associate the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team’s Gold Medal with the victory over the U.S.S.R. For all intents and purposes, the Americans could have lost in the real Gold Medal Game, and we would all still revel in the underdog victory over the mighty Soviets and cherish this authentic memory for years to come.
But since memory is the bedrock of future projection, its fallibility could have negative consequences on our attempts at progress.
Thinking back on the great embarrassments of my life, I realize that they don’t have anywhere near the clarity of my great accomplishments. Instead, there exists simply a nebulous feeling of disorienting unease and cognizant ambiguity. I vaguely remember the events, but it is the emotion that sticks out. Tripping and going down hard on my prepubescent face in front of the class during a spelling bee, an unfortunate pantsing (that’s down-trou for my friends from New Zealand) incident in 7th grade, a denied make-out attempt in high school – these events still give me slight pause, but I’m sure that, at the time, they were completely demoralizing. It’s not the specific details of these experiences that I remember, but rather a foreboding feeling that my life was over and that there was not a hole deep enough for me to crawl into. Naturally, these embarrassed feelings have faded with the passing of time. They have to if we are to shed the paralysis that accompanies them.
Interestingly, I’m pretty sure that, at various points throughout my life, I’ve taken things a step further by declaring myself the winner of the spelling bee, making myself the dominant pantsee rather than the shamefully pantsed, and claiming that I French-kissed that girl super awesomely. I’ve lied to myself so often about the events of my life that I honestly can’t remember the truth anymore. Does this make me a duplicitous person, or am I just operating within my normal human instincts to protect my ego? "Defense mechanism" seems like such a harmless term, one that should be used for a pitiable individual with low self-esteem. But it’s really just a euphemism for deceit, which is not a pitiable offense.
There’s also that strange phenomenon where one becomes convinced that they’ve thought or done something especially clever, hilarious, insightful, prophetic, profound, etc., only to discover that they’d read it in a book, seen it in a movie, or, worst case scenario, unknowingly stolen said mark of genius from a close friend. Of course, this phenomenon has its inverse as well.
Sometimes, we’ll catch a friend or loved one ripping off what we know to be our thoughts, words, or experience! This usually causes a great deal of indignation and leads us to be highly suspicious of someone we once trusted and admired. “How dare they pass off our brilliance as their own?” we think, as we struggle with the choice of whether or not to call them out on their thievery. (Karmically speaking, it’s probably best to keep our mouths closed because we will likely unknowingly return the favor at some point in our lives, likely sooner rather than later.) The problem here is that we believe our lies and ignore our theft-through-vicarious-assimilation. We ignore this thievery because we've forgotten it even occurred.
Castles Made of Sand
Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with a little ego protection now and then, but if we can’t accurately piece together authentic pieces of the past, we’re bound to be left with a false perception of the present. This, in turn, will lead to both unqualified confidence and undeserved deprecation, which will then lead to misplaced expectations. These rob the individual of authentic self-perception, which naturally leads to a flawed view of the world and a series of false premises. When our expectations are built on fallacies, future projection becomes problematic. It is impossible to meet, or even set, reasonable expectations when the expectations themselves are recklessly placed on a gelatinous foundation.
We all know, Jello is delicious, but it can also cause a big, sticky mess if not handled properly.
Cohen, Gillian. Memory in the Real World. East Sussex, United Kingdom: Psychology Press, 1996. Print.
Horton, Jennifer. "Top 5 Ways False Memories are Formed" DISQUS. Discovery. Web. 2 Jul. 2013.