Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events. Albert Einstein

We remember what we remember because it happened just the way we remember it. Except that doesn’t seem to be the truth. Last night at Toastmasters I told a couple of stories from my childhood I believe to be true.

When the Shell Lake massacre happened in August of 1967 my siblings and I met a man in a light blue car on a trail untraveled by anyone but us. The killer at that time was still on the loose, the RCMP was on a manhunt, and the killer was reported to be driving a light blue car.

In my memory, we picked up the pitchforks on our hay rack, ready to defend ourselves if the man in the light blue car stopped. Is it really true that we picked up the pitchforks? Or has my memory embellished this, did we really do nothing and just watch in horror and thankfulness when he passed without stopping? Did we worry about Mom because the only place that trail took you was to our home? I don’t remember being worried about Mom, or coming home from getting our hay. I only remember meeting a light blue car where we never expected to meet anyone.

The man in the light blue car stopped at my parent’s house and talked to mom and told her he was taking soil samples. She told him our neighbor’s son had his gun trained on him with orders to shoot if he came toward the house.

Studies show it is much easier to plant false memories than we think. Hillary Clinton once famously claimed she had come under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996. “So, I made a mistake,” she said of her false memory. If she could make a mistake like that, what about our own memories?

We don’t know how many of us are reliving false memories. We know therapists have made their clients believe they were sexually molested when they weren’t. People have been convicted because of eye witness accounts that were not true. Our false memories can be very detailed. We can deliver our false account confidently and emotionally. We aren’t lying because we believe what we are saying.

There is no memory or retentive faculty based on lasting impression. What we designate as memory is but increased responsiveness to repeated stimuli. Nicola Tesla

We may think that when eye witness accounts don’t match that someone is lying.  They are telling their side of the story. This isn’t the same as telling the truth and only the truth. “Just the facts ma’am,” may not actually be possible.

Walt Harrington a former reporter for the Washington Post Magazine, now a professor of literary journalism the University of Illinois, once said, “Truth is a documentary, physical reality, as well as the meaning we make of that reality, the perceptions we have of it.”

A true story is always filtered through the teller’s take on it.

The mind and its memory do not just record and retrieve information and experiences, but also infer, fill in gaps, and construct, wrote Bryan Boyd in On the Origin of Stories. “Episodic memory’s failure to provide exact replicas of experiences appears to not be a limitation of memory but an adaptive design.”

Narrative, as Barry Siegel director of UG Irvine’s Literary Journalism Program, explains, shapes meaning and order out of an existence that is otherwise just angst and chaos. This is one takeaway that nonfiction enthusiasts might consider when thinking about the intersections between stories and memory. There is harmony in both.

How much of what we remember about an event actually happened the way we remember it, and how much of what we remember is colored by the emotions surrounding the event? Do we reconstruct the event to make ourselves feel more heroic, hurt, and betrayed? As we retell the story does it get bigger in our mind?

Our mind tries to make sense of whatever is asked of us. People who have had their right and left brain hemispheres severed make up facts that each side of the brain appears to accept as true.

Patients with certain brain syndromes make up stories to replace the recent memories they don’t have. Could it be that all our memories are both bits and pieces of the truth and colored by our emotions and the meaning we put on that event? Could it be that relying on our memory is one of the most unreliable things we do?

It is curious to note how fragile the memory is, even for the important times in one’s life. This is, moreover, what explains the fortunate fantasy of history. Marcel Duchamp

Thank you for reading this post. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you will read some more. Have a blessed day filled with gratitude and love.

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You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, an d 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself Paperback – Nov 6 2012

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