Yesterday, I happened to catch an item on a great Radio Four news discussion show, iPM. It touches on something I’m very interested in, which hugely affects recorded and oral history, reflection and recollection. False memory is a fascinating, little discussed subject which I think it’s essential for everyone involved in the investigation of historical matters should be aware of. In a nutshell, we rarely recall things as they happened.
I’ve had discussions with folk around me now for some time about my, and other’s memories. I’ve become so acutely aware of how I remember things that I now understand that I recollect things from my childhood in the wrong order; I merge stuff into one event that occurred on different occasions, and that my memory – and from discussion, that of others – is not linear,but filled with half-perceptions and quite honestly, very fuzzy indeed. Even when it seems clear.
For instance, I remember walking to a particular shop with my dad when I was little. I remember every little detail of it, like what he and I were wearing, the sunny weather, the interior of the shop and what sweets he bought me. It can’t possibly be real, because the shop in question had closed long before I was able to walk. What my memory has done appears to be to compress loads of different events into one generic event which I recall very lucidly. That is very, very odd.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s quite normal. However, when we assert facts we recall, we need to be aware that our minds can play tricks on us. The discussion arose as quite a few listeners to iPM recall with clarity, watching the moon landings whilst at school, in classrooms, live on TV. I’ve met people who assert this myself. Quite simply, this wasn’t likely due to the time of day the landings occurred in the UK. I’ve snatched the discussion about false memory from iPlayer and included it below.
Let me be clear; this isn’t about the integrity of people, or lies and truth. It’s about how the human mind compresses it’s experience and learns, and also how we subconsciously trick ourselves. It’s fascinating. All those involved in local history reading this – and I know the likes of Paul Ford and Stuart Williams from the Local History Centre will be interested, as will Kate from Lichfield Lore, with whom I’ve discussed this on twatter several times.
I’d be interested to know your thoughts.