A recent post about doing exercises to take myself back to childhood and relive the sensations got me thinking about memory and how trustworthy recollections could be.
Here’s an exercise. If you want to start an argument with a sibling (like that’s difficult), just ask him/her the simple question: “Who first came up with the idea to...” and fill the blank with a practical joke, executed jointly that worked beautifully; or a project you both put a lot of effort into as kids. Chances are both of you will claim credit for coming up with the idea, and get annoyed with the other for failing to recognise this simple historical fact.
Why? Because memory is highly fallible.
We might experience memory like a tape recording. Rewind, press play, and the scene unfolds in front of us. The times when we’re unsure, we have to consciously reconstruct it, think harder, fill in blanks, and perhaps seek confirmation from others. The point is, even the times we feel quite sure of what happened, we are not replaying an undistorted scene. Because we recall by reconstructing the event. We follow a series of neural pathways, and jam together incidents and feelings that may not have actually happened in the sequence. Neural pathways are linked – associated. It’s easy to see how the pathway that portrays ourselves in a positive light is the one that gets chosen. It’s not hard to make a wrong turn and feel 100% confident that the memory is true.
There’s proof for this view. A recent study asked people exiting Disneyland to respond yes or no, regarding which characters they’d seen during their visit. “Mickey Mouse?” “yes” “Donald Duck?” “yes” “Bugs Bunny?” – many responded “yes”. Impossible, because the wascally wabbit is not a Disney character.
Yet, because it had been suggested, and because cartoon characters are filed close together, a large portion of people accepted they had seen him. On follow up a few weeks later, the same people were asked to list the characters they had seen at the park. Many who said “yes” to having seen Bugs included him in their list, and felt no need to question their memory. Why? Because it’s perfectly plausible. They’ll probably wonder why they failed to take a photo of Bugs on the day.
Now, I’m sure if the study had asked whether they’d seen Hannibal Lecter at Disneyland, few would have thought they had. Serial killers tend to not be closely associated with the Happiest Place on Earth. It’s harder to suggest something completely incongruous.
The thing is, misremembering happens every day, and it’s damned difficult to recognise when it does. As an example, many years ago, we had a pet rabbit. A girl came to visit and refused to hold him, as she’d been bitten by a bunny a few days earlier at a petting zoo. The other day, the long-deceased rabbit came up in conversation. The girl (now adult) scowled and said “I remember him, he bit me.” Well, one of us is misremembering here.
So what’s that got to do with writing?
Plenty, if you’re writing a memoir or a non-fiction piece which includes “eyewitness accounts”. Particularly if they refer to third parties.
As for fiction... well. In my earlier blog entry, I said I was aiming for authenticity by immersing myself in sensations of childhood. But I started to question how true my memories were, and got tied up. Finally, I asked myself - does it really matter? Fiction is about making things up. Writers are notorious for trawling through their own and other people’s lives for incidents to include in their work. If I’m going to steal others’ stories, the least I can do is modify them, even if I don’t mean to.
My only warning is: we tend to misremember incidents in a way that portrays us (and out pet bunnies) in a positive light. If we’re going to retell stories from our own childhoods, just expect siblings and close friends to feel we’re hogging credit for incidents they reckon they were responsible for! Let’s be generous and give kudos to others – even when we’re sure the credit belongs to us.