Editing Memories

Editing Memories February 14, 2014

An interesting article from NPR about a new piece of memory research. That is, if I’m remembering it correctly:

The brain edits memories relentlessly, updating the past with new information. Scientists say that this isn’t a question of having a bad memory. Instead, they think the brain updates memories to make them more relevant and useful now — even if they’re not a true representation of the past.


“Our memories aren’t perfect,” [neuroscientist Joel] Voss says. “They’re not like tape recorders. There’s a small current of thought that thinks these failures aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Memory is not intended to allow you to remember what you did last week, or remember your childhood. The point is to help you make good choices right now.”

So memory is not like a big data bank in which we shove every important thing we’ve seen. It’s more like a toolkit of experiences that we keep around because they might come in handy. And Voss’ findings suggest that we regularly update those memories to make them more useful tools – but less useful as a record of the past.

Sam Smith at Scholars and Rogues has a vivid example from his own life:

There was this one particularly traumatic evening back in the late ’80s, and when I recalled the events I remembered the driving rainstorm as I sat in my car in a parking lot in South Winston-Salem, my whole world falling apart around me.

There came a time when I had it demonstrated to me, with verifiable weather data, that it hadn’t been raining that night at all. Clear skies, no precipitation for miles.

As I understand the research, stress and trauma damage the ability to remember accurately. Given the magnitude of the crisis that evening it’s amazing I can remember anything at all correctly. And yet, the memories were – still are, to be honest – vivid as hell. It was by god raining cats and dogs that night.

The first thing I think of is Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, where the ghosts of Werner Heisenberg and Niels and Margrethe Bohr consider their shared past. The whole play turns on the question of what happened during a particularly fraught confrontation years ago. There’s a scene where Heisenberg is recalling a conversation with Niels under the streetlights, only to have Margrethe point out that air raid warnings meant that there would be no streetlights.

The second thing I think about, as a skeptic, is the case of Roswell and the supposed alien crash. It’s been noted that the stories of some of the town residents have changed over the years. As the UFO community in the rest of the country developed its tropes, those tropes ended up becoming part of the story for the eyewitnesses. Perhaps this is a case of memories being updated to make them more useful.

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