In the last few months, I have been busy putting together a ‘memory book’ with my Mum. We have found so many lovely pictures dating back to the early 1930s, during her childhood, through to the 1950s and 1960s. There were trips to London, Paris and Germany, photographs of engagements in my Grandparent’s garden and the arrival of new babies; in short, what we discovered was a treasure trove of happiness and expectation.
My Mum and I have been on a wonderful journey into the past. However, there is a considerable amount of research focusing on the unreliability of our memories.
There are many reasons why tiny mistakes can happen each time we recall past events, ranging from what we believe is true or wish were true, to what someone else told us about the past event. Whenever these mistakes happen, they can have long-term effects on how we’ll recall that memory in the future.
Our memories can change spontaneously over time, as a product of how, when, and why we access them. In fact, sometimes simply the act of rehearsing a memory can be exactly what makes it susceptible to change. This is known as “retrieval-enhanced suggestibility”.
Robert Nash, senior lecturer at Aston University comments:
“One theory is that rehearsing our memories of past events can temporarily make those memories malleable. In other words, retrieving a memory might be a bit like taking ice-cream out of the freezer and leaving it in direct sunlight for a while. By the time our memory goes back into the freezer, it might have naturally become a little misshapen, especially if someone has meddled with it in the meantime.”
“These findings teach us a lot about how our memories are formed and stored. And they might lead us to wonder how much our most treasured memories have changed since the very first time we remembered them.
Remembering is an act of storytelling, after all. And our memories are only ever as reliable as the most recent story we told ourselves. “
I am certain that none of this really matters because we have had a really enjoyable few months reconnecting once again with loved ones who are no longer with us.
“So many years, so many things to think about. Why do you remember some things and forget others? How does your brain know which bits will be relevant later? Are they all packed away, just waiting for the code, the key to the storage locker?” From Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall