part 1 in a series of 'whoa, science...' moments
Posted 2012.10.16
I remember the first time I read an article about memory in TIME. I was in high school, fully grown into the mentality of, "Read everything you can get your grubby hands on!", and my favorite things to read were long TIME cover stories on a topic of science or medicine. There were stories about how evolution trained us to be fat in a world of guaranteed food, about the impulses and implications of bipolar disorder, about whether the universe would end in a Big Crunch or simply infinite cold expansion, and about the possibility of multiverses created from each option in every choice or action. I read political and global cover stories, as well, but the writing of Michael D. Lemonick and John Cloud and their science-writer ilk were what really drove me to grab an issue, plunge into the couch and read.

The article I'm currently thinking of was on the transience of memory. Recent research had shown that memory is not a static thing at all. That first kiss, that touchdown pass, that car accident you recall in your head is not the one that really happened, the memory stored away into a secure file system; in fact, every time you recall something from your past, the original "file" gets changed by what you're currently thinking and feeling. It's the main reason why police investigators get written statements as soon as possible: even the first recall of an incident that happened five minutes ago isn't completely faithful to what the witness experienced. Every memory is fluid, the TIME article informed me, open to the whims of the present moment and every moment in the past when it was remembered. It's like your brain plays an elaborate game of telephone with its future selves, adding or taking out or changing some element of the memory with each recall. The article included graphics like firing neurons and brain areas that control memory, all around the text that spanned about five or six pages.

The thing is, I didn't read that article in TIME; I read it in Scientific American, in a copy I bought at Starbucks in summer 2007. I never read a TIME cover story on this aspect of memory (although I did read a non-cover story about it). I read every issue of TIME voraciously, not just the science cover stories. As for the TIME science writers, I learned about Michael D. Lemonick not from his magazine work, but from his blog posts on, and I first heard of John Cloud only after I graduated from high school. And, there was no 'telephone' analogy in the SciAm article. I don't think I made it up, but I also don't remember where I heard it.

The main gist of this memory is entirely flawed, and yet when I recalled it, it seemed so real and right. As I write this, I'm reconstructing the memory to more faithfully conform to the facts, but even that proves the point. This memory (indeed, all memory) is open to reconstruction, whether it's intentional or not. On the intentional side, it's what gives therapy much of its power to heal mental ills; on the unconscious side, it can bend our memories past what happened and into what we want, or need, to remember.

In fact, as a five-year-old Radiolab podcast asserts, the best way for a memory to stay true to the original experience is to never recall it at all. Then again, if you do that, what's the point of a memory? That first kiss was probably a fantastic moment you want to experience over and over and over in your head (and likely in real life, too!). The memory of that car accident probably has prevented you from getting into another similar accident because you recall what led to it. A memory can still prove quite useful, even if many of the details are a little iffy, or just plain wrong.

My memory of the not-TIME article is an amalgamation of many different memories and feelings, some continuous (I have always devoured TIME when I can, I love reading about science) and some momentary (The story about obesity as evolution's fault was REALLY GOOD). In a way, it's an easy encapsulation of my TIME and science reading experiences in high school. The process helps organize the events of my life in my head, just as do historical periods like the Industrial Revolution or the Bronze Age. Some of the details are inconsistent, but on the whole, the prevailing paradigm explains a lot. You just have to know when the dominant theme fails.

Memory forms much of what each person considers his or her identity. The memory of events and choices in the past are stitched together to create who we have come to be. But those memories can be very false, or at least idealized, so in some sense we build ourselves on lies, or at least self-delusions about our past selves.

And this, my friends, has blown my mind.

(Hey, look, iambic quadrameter!)

Extra: I referenced this phenomenon in a blog post in April about, oddly enough, cleaning my room.

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...