A Legend in Our Own Minds

“I clearly remember being able to breathe underwater as a child.”

This is the inscription written on one of the photographs displayed in AR Hopwood’s gallery entitled – The False Memory Archive. The intimate, beautiful archive takes the reader on an eerie journey through autobiographical memory. The exhibit contains sculptures, photos, text and film to show how pliable the nature of memory truly is. Along with memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, Hopwood created his work bridging the gap between the latest scientific research and art.

false memory

During an interview Hopwood stated, “I hope the work raises some key questions. For example, what link does our susceptibility to false recall have with our ability to imagine the future? If a memory of something is shown to be “false”, what happens to the recollection?”

Hopwood’s concise questions echo a wealth of modern neuropsychological evidence indicating that our memories aren’t the objective tape recorders of history that we believe them to be.

As Hopwood asked, “What’s more important: what actually happened, or what we remember happening?”

Unfortunately, we might not even remember what actually happened.

Throughout history we’ve used mechanical models to describe the human memory: from the clay tablet, to the record, to modern computers. The technical terminology and function of mechanical products give us a working metaphor for human memory.  We save our memories, access them at a later time and delete them at will.  Our need to find metaphors illustrate a powerful desire to have a memory that is dependable, resistant to change, and objective.

If experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of our experience, than having a stable reliable memory would mean we are wise.

When challenged about the veracity of our memory we castigate others for doubting us and often entrench ourselves, creating an even stronger belief in their reliability.

But memory is not a computer, not a record or a clay tablet. While it may record, recall and delete experience it does not do it in a mechanical fashion, but rather like an artist.

Our memories create a rich narrative of the world around us filling in the cognitive gaps to provide us with a story we can understand.  A narrative is filled with meaning which helps us understand the whys and hows of what happened in our lives.  This explains how two people may experience an event and come away with entirely different perspectives.

This is why people will always continue to argue, demanding that they are right, or why I can read a book and experience an entirely different world than you can.

Like a good artist, memory uses its surroundings to inspire itself – in psychology we call this inferences. Inferences fill in the gaps in our cognitive process and provide us with patterns of behavior which we can use to categorize future situations. If you and I had a meeting and I were late, the process of inference would indicate I might be late next meeting as well.  Inferences provide an efficient streamlined process for understanding the world, but sometimes there are gaps in that understanding.

And in those gaps, our memories become susceptible to suggestions.

In the most famous of memory experiments called “Lost in the Mall”, Elizabeth Loftus showed memories can be confabulations about events that never took place. She presented 24 students with stories provided by relatives about events that happened to them when they were four or six years old. Unbeknownst to subjects, one of the four stories was false.  Loftus then asked subjects to make a self-assessment regarding which story they thought was false. Out of 24 students, 5 recalled the “lost in the mall” story as definitely happening to them.  While 20% may not sound like an impressive number, when considered in the context of how much credibility we place on eyewitness testimony it tells a different story.

When we recall events we undergo a dynamic process of reconstruction.  We aren’t necessarily lying about everything that happened, but rather telling a story. Even the act of recalling a memory isn’t safe from confabulation, with each retelling we re-evaluate the meaning, creating an entirely different memory.

Memories change like a hypothetical fish story, growing with each retelling, until eventually we believe our own fabrications. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said,

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

We all exist within our own personal mythology.

A mythology we tell the world about ourselves. The more we rehearse and act out that mythology the more it stays in our minds.  While we may deny this fact, clinging to the idea that we are instead rational actors taking objective notes of reality, it is simply not true.

The people around you, your family, friends, spouse, and customers – they all exist in their own mythologies.

If we want to understand the people around us we must understand their mythologies and not place so much importance on what actually happened.

The best place to start understanding others is by first understanding yourself.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

Carl Gustav Jung 1875-1961 Founder of Analytical Psychology


If you enjoyed this, add a comment below and tell me if you think your memories can be totally faked or if you have ever tried any memory improvement techniques.