Human memory is a funny thing, in that we often expect more of it than it is capable, yet we also tend to underestimate it as well. For example, we often put incredible emphasis on the importance of eye witness testimony, and yet the work of Elizabeth Loftus and her peers has demonstrated that eye witness testimony is very flawed. If you were to observe a car accident between a white car and a black car, and I ask about the whereabouts of a blue car, it is entirely possible that your brain may manufacture the presence of a blue car simply to meet the line of questioning. The memory, once implanted, would be very difficult to excise.
If you are the kind of person who also is pretty confident in your brain’s abilities, say, someone who is of higher intelligence or who has been recognized as having a good memory, you would likely be even harder to challenge. A retired cop noted in an interview in the program “Brain Games” that the most certain witnesses are usually the most likely to have a flawed impression originating in their own brain.
This tendency becomes even more complicated when emotions are also part of the picture. Thanks to evolution, your brain tends to prioritize memories of experiences that are linked to survival risk and encode them more intensely than memories associated with pleasant experiences. At its base, our individual survival depends more on avoiding predators/threats than it does engaging with pleasantries. Part of this prioritization comes in the substance myelin, which is the insulator of neurons. More myelin equals faster messaging, and fear-related circuits tend to draw myelin to them easily.
Negative emotions reinforce encoding of the fear pathway, while positive emotions require intentional encoding- we have to use attention and rehearsal for them to be retained. We are far more likely to remember the details of our most awful day than we are to remember details of one of our best days; almost everyone above the age of 26 can tell you where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 occurred- it was so awful that the brain created a permanent snapshot.
I first became interested in the flaws of memory when my father was showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. Long before the disease affected his functioning in obvious ways, he had these quirks about him that seemed to simply be part of his personality. He had the same few stories that he liked to tell, and he would repeat them with high frequency. When my husband first met him, he was startled by the fact that my father told him the exact same stories on their way to the baseball game as he did on their way home. He tried to explain that this seemed pretty concerning, but it felt to me like dad simply being himself.
Getting lost easily also seemed to be more related to the fact that they had moved so many times- how could anyone learn as many different cities as my parents lived in? Eventually, the signs were way too obvious to miss, which is when my own memory distortions started to come into the picture- at what point could I remember my father being himself versus at what point had he actually been ill? Who was the authentic version of my father? How much were my own memories distorted by emotions and the way that I would tell stories about him?
In my work with clients, it is not uncommon to come across well-meaning family members who want to make sure that I have the whole story- they want to add to any perspective that the client may be giving to me. On one hand, I can appreciate the collateral information, particularly when it brings to light some issues or perspectives that have been particularly skewed. On the other hand, my clinical work has to occur within their own perception of reality and cannot be based on another person’s version of events.
My training allows me to understand that truth is usually in between two opposing perspectives, and everyone’s story will include some personal bias. It is my job to accommodate the bias in a way that allows the client to make movement in the right direction. Overly challenging their understanding of their story only creates distress in the therapeutic relationship, repeating patterns of invalidation that likely have happened repeatedly in their personal relationships.
Perception is like a giant game of telephone- everything is filtered by our attention and emotional state. It can help your relationships significantly to make room for the idea that anyone outside of your head sees experiences from a different perspective, and your acceptance of their history allows for increased understanding. If you ever want to test this idea, have someone you know recall an experience shared between the two of you- chances are that details will have come across differently than they were retained by your brain. To me, these differences make our lives feel richer, but it can be hard when their recall puts you in a negative position. Understanding is much more effective in relationships than trying to control their perspective!
Also, check out Brain Games on Netflix. It does such a great job of teaching about how the brain works!