http://neuroblog.stanford.edu/?p=649

Our faulty memories: do not trust everything you believe to have happened

Did someone order Peking Duck?

My uncle, Alan, and I were having dinner along with a some relatives. The topic of good restaurants came up, and uncle Alan insisted that I had treated a bunch of people to an awesome Chinese restaurant (Restaurant A) a couple of months back.

“Uncle Alan, it wasn’t me – I swear I wasn’t there.”

“I swear you were! You even ordered us Peking duck!”

After input from a couple of the other relatives, who either chimed in about the Peking Duck or denied my existence during that wonderful meal, I made a further clarification.

“Uncle Alan, I think you meant Restaurant B – the Chinese restaurant I took everyone to after that prize ceremony. That wasn’t Restaurant A…I think it was Larry who took everyone to Restaurant A?”

“Oh. Right. Whoops. Restaurant A was for Larry’s wedding. Yes, he treated us all.”

Uncle Alan, a 50-year-old healthy, fit man, had sworn of my presence at an event which in reality, I was not there. The memory of me being there was so ingrained in uncle Alan’s mind that it inspired discussions about the menu that day. The fact is I wasn’t there. It took specific event prompts – mentioning the alternative restaurant, the reason for the gathering, the correct association to Restaurant A – to jolt uncle Alan back to the actual historical course.

Bet you 200 bucks it was that movie star!

Mom and I were watching a soap about life within the Forbidden City in ancient China. It was a remake of the same script, some 10 years earlier, only with different actors and better stunts this time around. We were debating who the original female protagonist from the soap 10 years ago was. I was certain it was actress B. Mom was sure it was actress A. We were so confident in our respective memories of who the actress was that we upped the debate to a 200 dollar bet. It turns out that it was actress B.

Sorry mom…

Remembering things that didn’t happen

It’s normal for us to remember something that didn’t happen.

An article in Psychology Today discusses how faulty our memories are, and how we for instance, claim memories to be ours where in reality it happened to a friend. Whether the event actually happened has nothing to do with how real the memory is perceived. The article points out brain activity appears to be the same during memory recollection for a person who truly experienced the event, versus one who didn’t and was experiencing it as a false memory. A Time article goes as far as saying everyone is afflicted with these false memory bouts, even those with superior memory power. It’s a common human flaw.

Feeling down? Your memory might be down too

I was going through a particularly rough time and had trouble sleeping one night. Early the next morning, a phone call arrives. The house is quiet but I distinctly remember the ringing. I even remember the cleaning lady, Chelsea, picking up the phone, saying a few things about me still sleeping, and quietly coming into my room to check if I was in bed. At the time, I debated getting up to see who was calling, but I was so exhausted that I kept my head buried under the blankets and drifted back to sleep. A couple of minutes later, a second phone call comes. It rings persistently and this time I get out of bed to pick up the call from the living room. My aunt from North America. I sound grouchy, so we exchange a few pleasantries and she kindly tells me to go back to bed. Chelsea is nowhere to be seen.

Later that morning I get up and call Chelsea to ask who made the first call. To my surprise, Chelsea said she didn’t pick up any calls. She had left the house very early that morning and was gone by the time the first phone call came. I check the phone records. Indeed there where two phone calls at 8.37am and 8.41am respectively. One is a private caller, the other long distance – my aunt.

Strange. I thought I heard Chelsea pick up the call, talk to someone, and quietly come into the room to check on me. Chelsea said she didn’t. She wasn’t there. I believe her. Though my aunt did call and I did talk to her – that’s undisputed.

Another Psychology Today article explores the effects of negative mood on experiencing non-existent events as memories. University graduates were used as a sample and were induced to feel either emotionally neutral or emotionally negative, by writing down a memory of the corresponding mood. The study found that the emotionally neutral students performed better at a subsequent reality discrimination task, than their emotionally negative peers.

Explanation

There’s an explanation for what happened with the first call. I was feeling vulnerable and sad that morning, and was expecting a phone call from someone special to apologise. There were two phone calls within minutes of each other that morning – I have photographic evidence of the calling times and caller IDs. The subsequent imagined events from the first call – Chelsea picking up and checking up on me – didn’t happen. It was my wishful thinking that it did. In my slumbering, hazy state, I heard the first ring and dreamed up the rest. The persistent second call perked me up from bed, and I talked to my aunt briefly. If anything, it gave weight to the first call and the subsequent perceived reality, since the calls were so close together and gave it that realistic touch.

Everyday events

We all, to some extent, experience false memories, or mix up reality and imagination. Woken up by an alarm and dreaming that we’ve been brushing our teeth and dressing up, only to realise an hour later that we switched off the snooze button and are now late to work. Remembering the shape of a childhood living room and its antique furniture, only to revisit the same home years later and find everything to be in a completely opposite orientation (and much smaller!). Remembering only the bad things (or only the good) from an event, depending on how our relationship with the people involved have evolved.

Our memories pick and choose, selectively discarding something and highlighting something else. Our memories are not infallible. They are actually quite malleable. Unless we keep a minute by minute diary of our lives, we’re likely to mis-remember a few things here and there.

What about you? Do you have interesting stories of mis-memories to share?

Conversations prompted by Daily Post on dialogue.

Feature image credit: http://neuroblog.stanford.edu/?p=649

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11 comments on “Our faulty memories: do not trust everything you believe to have happened

  1. Pixie, my friend

    One thing is for sure: I laughed really hard because of this article, though it is not meant to be humorous, and you have scientific basis. You know why? I myself do not even trust my own memory — faulty memory. I tell someone else’s story, thinking it was really mine. This post of memory could I think be linked to also deja vu.

    • S.J. Takeshi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Takeshi

      Yes, it happens to us all doesn’t it? I used to think it’s the strangest thing, false memories. But with some research it appears to be quite common, and that the human mind is more susceptible to manipulation (eg the false hot hair balloon experience experiment) than we think.

      What story did you tell as your own?

      I’d like to know more about déjà vu too. It’s an interesting phenomenon to research about, and one can approach it from a scientific angle or a more spiritual/emotional level.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Our brains’ system is totally complex, isn’t it?
        Well, during our Psychology 101 class, I opened up to the class that I told someone that I broke up with my boyfriend (and the guy is my bestfriend’s boyfriend that time, when they broke up, thus ex-boyfriend). But, for God’s sake, I never had a boyfriend either!!!
        We have the same interest. I hope I could see from you, from these days on, a post about deja vu. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This rarely happens to me, but false awakening quite often does actually. I’m a fundamentally lazy person especially in the mornings so it always takes so much effort for me just to get out of bed. Whenever my laziness wins over my sense of responsibility, I wake up really late and thus have to rush everything in preparation to go to school (or now to the uni). In that extra sleeping time I take whenever my laziness wins, false awakening occurs. My consciousness dictates that I’ve woken up, showered, and now is walking out of my house, when in reality I’m still in bed. To be honest this sucks lol and I really need to fix this.

    And I really like your writing style 🙂 and thank you very much for stopping by my blog and to give it a read.

    Like

    • Yes it’s frustrating when that happens right? I like how you coined it “false awakening”. It captures the scenario perfectly. Someone once told me it’s a matter of will – this forcing ourselves out of bed and doing stuff. If you get into a habit it starts to stick. Inertia right? I think small victories matter. Say waking up 5 minutes earlier each morning, or waking up and doing 10 minutes of exercise each day, then eventually increasing the numbers as the days go by.
      Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running comes to mind. Here’s an extremely prolific writer with the discipline of a bee. He goes on to train for and run various marathons and is very successful as a runner too. Maybe he has the key to being productive.
      Margaret Atwood also says that word after word after word is power. To some extent, it’s more about doing the artform, rather than thinking about it too much. At least that’s what I tell myself everyday!
      Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you like my writing and thank you for the thoughtful comments. I look forward to your poetry too 🙂

      Like

  3. Thank you so much for the suggestion/advice 🙂 I’d say hopefully I would practice it, but it’s always hard for me to stay consistent as well. Especially these days, habits of mine change very often. Like, this month I would be very productive by helping my family and friends with various works and finish many homeworks, but the next month all that would change and the month after that some new habits would develop (although it doesnt have to be in a month gap). Only one habit never changed, though, that is procrastinating hahaha. This one is the tough one.

    I’m sorry to reply with another long comment and telling you about all those things, my bad side. But thank you so much for willing to read and for giving some advice 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more of your writings too ^_^

    Like

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