Memory – the ultimate unreliable narrator.
When we remember events, especially after some time has passed since these events, we do not recall them as if seeing them on film. We recall edited, modified versions of what actually happened. What we remember is influenced by our personalities, by our moods, by our interpretations. Long term memory can be fickle.
Neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield, was speaking on ‘Saturday Live’ on BBC Radio Four recently. She talked about how unreliable our memories can be over time. She stated that as we age, and as we are changed by experience, our memories are also altered.
We reframe events to fit where we are now. This is not the same as dishonesty. It’s just a fact of how our brains work. We are easily convinced that what we remember is true. And to some extent our recollections are true. They are true to who we were and are, but they’re not necessarily accurate. Of course memories can be accurate, but accuracy seems to depend on how involved we were in the event being recalled, how active we were in the scenario, how significant it seemed to us at the time. We process and rationalise our experiences and store edited and manageable versions of the facts.
And while it would seem logical to assume that the more traumatic an event is, the more likely the details will be seared in the memory as ‘flashbulb’ moments, scientific studies have shown this is not necessarily the case.
*Flashbulb memories was a term coined by researchers Roger Brown and James Kulik after they researched people’s memories of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Brown and Kulik asserted that the vividness with which people recalled seeing and/or hearing of the assassination was because such a traumatic event produced ‘picture-like’ clarity. However they had not interviewed their subjects immediately after the killing, but several years later. They were impressed with the vividness of the reported memories, but they had no first memories to compare these with.
But the whole notion of the accuracy of flashbulb memory was first challenged by Professor Ulric Neisser from Cornell University. After the explosion of the space shuttle, Challenger, in 1986, he set up an investigation into the supposed phenomenon. He interviewed a group of college students less than twenty-four hours after the disaster about where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the explosion. He then re-interviewed them thirty months later. Twenty-five percent of them were mistaken about every detail. Only seven percent received perfect recall scores.
A similar study carried out by Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin who recorded the 9/11 experiences of fifty-four students at Duke University in the US three days after that terrible event, found that seven months later those memories had faded at the same rate as everyday ones.
However, further studies carried out by psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Tali Sharot have shown that the closer to and the more involved a person is in an incident, the more vivid their memory will be and the more convinced they’ll be of its accuracy. Sharot suggests that it’s vividness and not accuracy of memory that serves us well. She uses the example of being attacked at night in a park. If this happens to you, you are unlikely to enter that park in the darkness ever again. Details of what the attacker looked like, or the precise time of the attack are less likely to be stored. What matters is that a confident memory of the episode serves as a constant reminder not to repeat the behaviour that led to the trauma.*
Memory seems to have evolved in humans to aid future planning i.e. to record salient and useful points, but not to lay down detailed photographic records of the past.
So, if memory is not clear cut, scientific or completely reliable, in what way is it significant for writers?
For writers of fiction, the unreliability of memory doesn’t matter. The memories of novelists, short story writers and poets are vital wells from which to draw. Our writing comes from our experience. That experience can be real, imagined or a blend of both. Even a completely made-up, surreal or fantastical component has to have its roots in some form of remembered experience. The mind, memory and imagination are all inextricably linked. This is never more true than when they’re used in the creative process. Memory will fire the imagination. The writer’s mind will have to make sense of the outcome of that firing for the reader’s benefit. But there will be no need for the original memory to be accurate, no need for the author to interrogate it. For the novelist memory is a useful, even vital, tool and it’s there to be distorted, played around with, reframed.
Writers of diaries or journals who are recording actual events will, however, aim to be more accurate in their recollection. But even although their recording will be close to immediate, they will filter what they write. They’ll choose which memories to put in and which ones to leave out. They’ll then process and reflect on the experiences they do decide to include.
However, you would assume that writers of memoir would by definition be recounting accurate memories of a life lived. But they too, like the rest of us, are susceptible to distorted remembrances. And even if they weren’t, there is no way a whole life can be written down. A memoir has to be episodic. The written version of a life has to be an edited version. The memory of the author will be selective, reflective and subjective and I suspect that’s what makes the memoir interesting and very human.
In writing, as in life, memories have enormous power. They have power to comfort, to torture, to silence, to protect and to inspire. And, also as in life, writers use memory to inform, to persuade and to entertain. And, yes, as in life, it’s up to those on the receiving end of these reworked memories to decide on their usefulness, meaning and truth.
* A full account of these studies along with many other fascinating insights into the workings of the human mind can be found in ‘The Optimism Bias’ written by Tali Sharot and published by Robinson. ISBN 978- 1-78033-263-5
Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at http://annestormont.wordpress.com – where you can find out lots more about her.