“I remember where I was when…” A phrase so commonly used when describing our recollections of, often tragic, events. And yet, this common expression has allowed psychologists to trace the unreliability of narratives that human beings place so much faith in; that of major events in our own lives.
A group of researchers, looking at the way our memories of personal experiences shift with time, began an investigation in 2001 days after the 9/11 attacks. The psychologists from more than a dozen universities across the US asked 2,100 Americans to detail their experience of the tragic day.
Questions included where they were, who they were with and how they reacted to the news. The volunteers were questioned again after a 1-year, 3-year and 10-year interval. It was found that forty percent of the respondents changed their recollections of the event markedly with time. Curiously the stories underwent the greatest change when only a year had passed after 9/11. After this the volunteers tended to tell the same false story in the decade that followed.
“You begin to weave a very coherent story,” says study author William Hirst, PhD, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.
“And when you have a structured, coherent story, it’s retained for a very long period of time.”
The findings reveal what an important part our inner narrative of events plays, whilst also exposing our memories as being worryingly unreliable. Not only are we able to believe false stories – something that has been proliferated over the U.S. elections with false news – we also have a striking tendency to alter recollections in our minds as time progresses.
Our memories are a story constantly retold
Why do we do this? Well, our minds are constantly building a narrative that forms an integral part of who we are, and our brains simply don’t work like a cloud storage.
As Hirst says, “Human memory is not like a computer, [it] is extremely fallible.”
An example of this is the way we have a propensity to believe something that is false as long as it fits comfortably within a narrative context. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel prize winner, gives a great example of how we’re always searching for causality, reframing events to fit into a context and how we’re ready to believe things as long as they fit fluidly within a context.
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he details two headlines that Bloomberg News ran on the day Saddam Hussein died. Both were focused on how the major event had affected bond prices. One headline read, “U.S. Treasuries Rise; Hussein Capture May Not Curb Terrorism.” Half an hour after this headline broke, bond prices fell and a revised headline was released; “U.S. Treasuries Fall; Hussein Capture Boosts Allure Of Risky Assets”.
We need an anchor to ground our memories and we’re willing to change or distort our recollections of the events surrounding it as long as it works in service of the wider narrative. This, Kahneman claims, is actively happening at a subconscious level with our own memories. Further proof of this is the fact that in the 9/11 study, 80% of volunteers recalled event information that happened on the day accurately. They remembered the anchor more accurately than their own personal experiences.
We may be unknowingly manipulating our memories to fit within the wider context of major events
Psychoanalyst Ken Eisold points to The New York Times’ report that “False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence.” False confessions can be motivated by intimidation tactics, or in order to avoid painful interrogation tactics.
As Eisold says though, “all memories are motivated. It is just a matter of degree.”
Our minds may be recollecting things falsely, spurred on by subconscious motivations. The research can be important to allow us to understand the proliferation of false news and how human beings are so susceptible to believing false information and being swayed by propaganda and advertising.
Further advancing the notion that our memories are surprisingly unreliable is a recent study that used genetic engineering to activate the hippocampus – a brain region that is key to memory formation – in mice. They were able to make one set of mice falsely believe they had stepped on part of a maze, triggering an electric shock. They tested this against another set of mice that hadn’t had the false memory implanted. The mice with the false memory avoided the spot whilst the others didn’t.
The study highlighted memory’s important function as a guide for future behaviour, whilst again showing how prone it is to external suggestion.
Exercise our brain to keep our mind sharp
Your brain isn’t a muscle, anatomically speaking, but psychologists and neuroscientists suggest exercising it as if it were. Certain activities can lead to a healthy functioning brain and better memory recollection as well as boosted brainpower.
Recent studies have shown that a balanced diet and regular exercise play an enormous part in keeping the brain healthy. Not only do they keep mental illness at bay, they can also enhance cognitive ability. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts and kiwis, for example, have long been highly rated for their benefits to the brain. They help to fight mental disorders whilst also improving learning and memory functions.
Rest is also extremely important. Scientists believe that REM sleep plays an important role in memory development, whilst stress has a terrible effect on the brain. Our memories may not be as reliable as once thought but we can still take steps to keeping a healthy functioning vessel for our personal recollections.