Saturday, 18 October 2014

I can't remember anything that I remember

I reckon I have a pretty good memory.

My brain seems to be pretty good at storing information. Ok, maybe not always quite so good at retrieving that information again, but I can usually catch it in the end.

People are often amazed at the stuff I can remember. My family is often blown away by the way I can give blow by blow descriptions of event that happened so long ago everyone else has long since forgotten them. I have vivid recollections of family holidays, sporting events, and books that I read when I was a little kid.

Except, here's the thing. I was reading up on some information about the latest research on the way the brain works (it's an occupational hazard of my job) and I discovered something that is either very interesting or very disturbing.

When we remember something, it's not like we just pull that information from our brain and then put it back again when we're done, as if our brain is like an organic filing cabinet. It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

Apparently, every time we recall some information, that information has to be re-encoded back into our memory (as if we're re-remembering it for the first time). And that re-encoding can be a highly imprecise thing. It can be affected by all sorts of things, like how we're feeling at the time, or what else is happening to us.

Basic upshot is, each time something is recalled from memory and then returned, it can change, maybe subtly or maybe in quite large ways. So in the end, what we think we are remembering are actually things that maybe never even happened (at least not in the way we remembered it).

Which kind of pisses me off. To think that for all these years I was walking around thinking I remembered stuff so well when I probably didn't. All these things I could remember that everybody else had forgotten - chances are they never ever happened in the first place.

Oh well. At least when I write things down, I can have some sense that things happened the way I thought they did. Maybe that's why I decided to be a writer. Maybe that's the only way I can provide some sense of permanence of memory, while everything else turns to vapour.

There was a reason I decided to use this topic for my blog post this week. I wish I could remember what it was.

1 comment:

  1. This is why truth is my whipping boy, Jonathan, because of our inability to remember things with one hundred percent accuracy. I would hate to witness an accident or a crime and be questioned by the police because I don’t have a good memory. I forget things as they’re happening. Arguments are the worst because most arguments rest on the fact that you believe you’re in the right and maybe I was in the right when we started arguing but two minutes in I can no longer be absolutely certain who said what or when which is good in a way because it means I back down before things get heated and Carrie can usually tell when I’m confused and backs off too. It’s frustrating because we both like to be right but you cut your cloth. I’ve read a lot about memory problems over the last few years—I’ve even had my memory tested a couple of times (I have what they call mild cognitive impairment)—but when you have memory problems there’s not really an awful lot that can be done. Just keep the brain active. Which I do. The worry, of course, is that this is going to lead to early onset dementia but if it does then we’ll just have to cope. This is why I never try to write anything autobiographical because I can never remember the details. Hell, I can’t keep how long I’ve been married in my head.

    You might find this article of interest: Is There a Difference Between Memory and Imagination?