Memories don’t lie… or do they?

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.

The always excellent XKCD points out that memories are not always untrustworthy… click image to visit he cartoon in a more readable form.

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.

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12 Responses to Memories don’t lie… or do they?

  1. Quite right Bob, I’ve come across this before, and there was even someone earlier this year who wrote to the local papers stating he had seen the Apollo 11 Moon landing while in school.

    I on the other hand remember distinctly seeing them land in the evening.

    In fact the landing of Apollo 11 occurred at 20:17:39 GMT, though the other Moon missions landed at various times, and memories, as you say, get mixed and joined up, sometimes seemingly at random.

    The human memory is not linear, like data on a hard drive it is scattered all over the place, and comprises different types of sensory experience, so people remember bits and pieces, often triggered by visual, taste or auditory stimulus. We often remember what we want to, as well.

    Without evidence, then, sometimes memory needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as experienced oral historians will tell you.

  2. You’re right, this is a fascinating subject. And I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of myself this sometimes….
    For example, the stocks in Coleshill. My memory tells me that aged around 3 or 4, I used to walk down the street & that I was fascinated by them. As the person on the audio says, I have a scene in my head of pre-school Kate stood in front of these stocks. Yet when I saw a photo of them recently, they actually aren’t the stocks in my memory! Similarly you asked me if I remember the stocks in the Arbo. Yes-ish. Or have I? I’ve been to the Arbo lots of times & I’ve seen lots of stocks in my time (I was a strange child…) Have I just put these two things together & created a memory?
    As you say I don’t always think it’s a case of people being deceitful, I think it’s perhaps a combination of things. Filling in the gaps with knowledge since aquired, attaching our own significance to things also as Stuart says we remember what we want to (the old rose tinted specs?), maybe in cases of things like the moon landings we want to be part of this collective memory? Plus the love of a good story made just that little bit funnier, scarier, happier…..
    As the audio says, mostly it doesn’t matter. I have however had to be a witness in court once. It was surprisingly difficult to recall all the information, even after a few months, so the majority of my evidence was ‘I’m sorry I just can’t remember exactly’. Whilst me having a false memory of some stocks doesn’t really matter, the implications here could have been serious. As Bob says it’s something we should be mindful of and actually I’m really glad to be reminded of this issue.

    Well, my answer to that was so long, you’ve probably had time to create a false memory 😉
    Cheers, Kate

  3. hapdaniel says:

    I have vague recollections of 1970 if that helps.

  4. Andy Dennis says:

    Kate makes an interesting point about wanting to be part of the collective experience. Bobby Charlton has said that if all accounts of the 1966 World Cup final were to be believed there were about a million people (or some other impossible number – I can’t recall precisely) in the stadium.

    I remember watching the 1966 World Cup final on our new telly with my Dad at one end of the room, while mother and little sister studiously avoided it at the other. How much I recall of the actual game and how much is acquired later I really don’t know.

    The same is true of the Moon landing. I don’t really recall that much detail, though I do remember that the “giant leap for mankind” must have been in the small hours because Dad went to bed as the next day was a work day. It must have been in the school holidays because we saw the semi-final while on holiday in Cornwall. I think it is this sort of context that leads people to have differing “memories” of the same event. How many times have you read a newspaper report of something you attended and then wondered if the reporter was somewhere else?

    The Police have done some interesting work on how people who are involved in the same incident then make conflicting eye-witness statements (even though they are all telling the truth as they see it). There was a tv program about it some time ago, but I can’t remember when …

  5. David Evans says:

    HI Bob

    hence the famous saying;-
    “Of all the things I have lost I miss my memory the most” perhaps?
    I imagine that today’s psychology undergraduates and others still discuss the theme of memory, recall, recognition, memory retrieval, episodic and procedural memory process as part of their syllabus.
    cheers
    David

  6. martin says:

    Robbie Williams, troubador, philosopher and former Midlander, said

    “Well there’s three versions of this story
    mine, yours and then the truth
    And we can put it down to circumstance,
    our childhood, then our youth”

    and I think he’s paraphrasing someone else, but I can’t remember who

  7. Facade66 says:

    A perfect example of a shared is the old childrens TV series “Captain Pugwash”

    Ask anyone of the correct age, and they know beyond a shadow of a doubt, because they heard it on TV week after week, that there were 2 characters, Messrs Bates and Staines, one being a seaman, the other a “Young Master”.
    Like everyone else, I know it is true, I remember it for certain.

    I’m also certain the old Central Schools building behind the miner used to have a “boys” and a “girls” door because I remember seeing the masonry words over the doors many times, yet I can’t find a photograph to prove it, someone must have removed the words and carefully replaced the bricks with perfectly weathered examples that match exactly!

    Yet it is an urban myth

    On the Other hand, Pugwash is rather a rude colloquialism!

  8. Pingback: A very modern myth « BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  9. Andy Dennis says:

    Very naughty of me I know, but I’m surprised no one picked up on my experimental conflation of two events that even the panellists on “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” would have avoided.

  10. Pingback: I remember it well… I was there. Or was I? | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  11. Adrian keen says:

    Good old school and loved it better than the comp I went to the centre boys school to 1970 till 1972 until you. Went yo the comp Mr Ronald Massey was the head master just like good bye Mr chips old fashion school yes I loved the old central school Adrian keen from Bilston

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