Sometimes I think all the memories floating around in my head aren’t real. I know rationally they must be based in some sort of reality, but I think that some of the ones from childhood have become so contaminated and distorted by time that they no longer resemble anything that actually happened. Even now, I can see the pattern continuing with my adult memories.
Three years ago, I attended my first day at the University of Sydney. I’d signed up for an orientation O Week mentoring group and remember arriving late, missing the icebreakers. I remember what the room looked like, and some of the advice we were given about diving into clubs and societies. I recall meeting my friend, Swetha, in that group.
But Swetha swears she doesn’t remember me that day; for her, our fated first meeting never happened. On the one hand, I’m slightly miffed that she found me so forgettable, but on the other, I’m worried at the fallibility of my own recollection.
Helen Paterson, a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Sydney, says that people’s memories are often modified by the brain’s need to fill gaps, a tendency described by the ‘vacant slot theory’. “Perhaps that detail’s not there in your memory because you just didn’t pay attention to it, and then you receive the information from someone else and you just slot in that vacant slot,” says Paterson.
She tries to reassure me that my fear of forgetfulness is misplaced. “In our day to day lives, accuracy isn’t really paramount. What’s more important is that we’ve got a coherent sense of self in who we are and we feel good about ourselves,” she says. “So it’s okay if we forget about irrelevant details. Perhaps we want to forget about the times we did stupid things, it’s good for our wellbeing.”
The truth is, every single one of us walks around with a head full of fake memories. None of us are reliable narrators of our own autobiographies. In his book Idiot Brain, which outlines the ways our brains fail us, neuroscientist Dean Burnett writes, “the most worrying thing is that you don’t need to be suffering from psychological issues to have false memories created in your head. It can happen to virtually everyone.”
False memories can come from anywhere. They could be fragments from a dream or a movie that we’ve transplanted into our own lives and stories. Perhaps through the act of reminiscing or retelling a story, it becomes unintentionally revised. As humans we manipulate our own memories all the time, some tampered by nostalgia or bias, and others just blatantly false. Just as fake news is pervasive, so too are the false memories that subconsciously adhere to what we’d like to believe.
Repressed memories of trauma and their accuracy in a court of law are a big point of contention among psychology scholars — a whole new can of worms. If recalled unwillingly, some difficult memories, like the passing of a loved one, can mean the brain develops a pseudo-memory to help cope.
Paterson told me about the ‘lost in a mall’ study where 25-30 per cent of people recalled childhood memories that never happened after reading fake letters from relatives that claimed the event had occurred.
When I was small, I got lost in a shopping mall. I was upset with my mum and running around trying to find my dad. That context is hazy, but I have a distinct memory of running up the escalators and hugging my dad’s leg. It wasn’t until I looked up that I realised I’d hugged a random stranger. I honestly have no idea if this actually occurred.
If you’re someone who has a plethora of childhood memories stored away in a mythical chest of treasures, I envy you. I asked Paterson whether there were any techniques to call up lost memories, or remember better. The only advice she gave me was to try to consolidate my memory as quickly as possible, by confirming with others.
The brain’s instinct to alter memories may be a positive one, but the knowledge that it does so is disturbing. Perhaps that is one memory it would be better to forget.
Anyone remember the 90s film Shazaam where Sinbad plays a genie? If you do, then I have some bad news for you. Sadly, no such movie exists except in the minds of hundreds of Redditors who swear they’ve seen the film. If you do remember this movie, then I’m sorry to inform you that you may be living in a ‘social contagion of memory’.