This short essay originally appeared in Neuroticarium Volume 1 Issue 2: Memory in 2019.
Memory is not a recording device
When we remember things, we don’t just find the right file and press play.
It happens like this. Our senses take in information about what’s happening, our brains interpret that information, connect it with information we already have, and decide what’s of the new stuff is worth storing. Our minds file away each new event in relation to memories we already have — metatagging them with themes and people and times and places and causes and effects.
In this process of contextualising new information, we often end up getting things out of order, associating them with the wrong people, embellishing them or merging them. Then when we explore a memory, we reconstruct it using the interpretation and context we used to store it.
Essentially, we base our entire senses of the world and who we are upon brain functions that are fundamentally fallible.
No one has many conscious memories from their earliest years. Baby and little kid brains don’t really make them, so they’re not even there to be accessed by regression hypnosis or whatever. There are a bunch of names for the kind of memory little ones have, but I’m going with ‘event memory’. It’s tied to things that happen in the moment and once it stops being relevant, it’s forgotten.
Types of things someone under about six can remember are procedures and patterns if they happen over and over. They’ll know that sitting at the table means food is coming, to raise their arms when someone’s taking their shirt off, or that if they cry, someone will come to them. They might remember a handful of events or images, but they won’t recall when they happened or why or what happened later as a result.
To remember longer spans of time and how cause and effect works needs what most researchers call ‘episodic memory’, which starts working around age six. It’s pretty much what most of us call long-term memory. It works by linking event memories and organising them into narratives that lead to an outcome.
What happens is, our brains take a bunch events that may or may not have anything to do with each other, link them together, and decide that all the bits and pieces make sense because they’ve led to a particular conclusion. It’s how we convince ourselves that our lives make sense. It’s why people get confused when bad things happen to good people. It’s why people with no background in science so readily believe they can identify scientific cause and effect.
Because long-term memory is organised around a narrative structure of cause and effect, we feel we need to learn from negative experiences to make our pain worthwhile. If things aren’t working out, it just means we haven’t yet fulfilled our destiny, whereas positive experiences can just be enjoyed, because it means the story has come to its natural conclusion and we’re living happily ever after.
We Are Storytellers
Every human culture has a similar tradition of storytelling and mythology. Heroes from different cultures might have different goals and our stories might have different morals, but they all have goals and morals. If a character does something bad (eats forbidden fruit), they will be punished (childbirth hurts, farming is hard).
Our instinct for fabricating cause and effect relationships is reflected in the way so many of us process grief and trauma: if X horrible thing hadn’t happened, Y wonderful thing would never have happened.
It is profoundly uncomfortable to have horrible things happen without them giving meaning to the greater narratives of our lives.
Endowing our pain with meaning makes it easier to bear. But in truth, sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
Our instinct is to tell a good story, not an accurate one. Our audiences reward us for taking them on an emotional journey — making them laugh, cry, feel fear or anger — not for accuracy. Plus, the more engaging your story, the more it’s likely to be remembered.
We trade accuracy for memorability and humanity lives in a fog of stories based on what actually happened.