Have you ever had a disagreement over what happened at a birthday party or family get-together? You’re not alone—and there is a reason for it. Our brains don’t store a reliable memory of what actually happened!
Researchers at Northwestern University have discovered that we update our memories over time. The study shows specifically how memory is faulty and how it inserts things from the present into memories of the past when those memories are retrieved. The original “version” of a memory is changed and re-stored with new information. Scientists say this isn’t a sign of a failing mind. Rather, they believe the brain updates memories to make them more useful and consistent with current needs and beliefs.
“To help us survive,” researcher Donna Jo Bridge says, “our memories adapt to an ever-changing environment and help us deal with what’s important now. Our memory is not like a video camera. Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world.”
Well, that explains a few things! Rather than fighting about who is “right” about an event that happened in the past, we can agree that neither of us is! It’s just not within the processing of our brains to remember events accurately.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t cherish our memories. Quite the opposite, in fact. It now appears that we’ve had a hand in creatively maintaining those memories. We’ve made them better with time (or worse, depending upon the memory, of course).
When we take that trip down memory lane, let’s keep a couple of things in mind:
• Our memory may be precious and important to us—but not particularly accurate.
• We tend to re-write memories to suit our beliefs (not the other way ‘round).
• Memories aren’t “right or wrong.” They’re a personal view of what happened.
This new information allows us to better understand how we view the past and gives us (and our family) a little slack around what “actually” happened. Without the video camera, we may never know for sure.