Our fickle memory

memory

True story: a man and his fiancé were going out for the evening.  As it happened, his car was like one that was driven by a man who’d just raped a woman.  He also looked a little like the aggressor.  The police spotted his car and picked him up.  The he was put in a line-up, and the victim noted that he looked “like” the perpetrator.

That was enough for the police and he was charged.  By the time the trial came along 6 months later, the victim was now saying he “was” the same guy.  This man was convicted and sent to jail. He was a fighter and managed to convince an investigative reporter to take up his story – and that reporter found the real criminal.

You might be thinking: Whew! I’m so glad he got off and was completely exonerated.  Well, he did and he was, but he couldn’t let the injustice go. It cost him his job, his fiancé and all his savings. He died in his 30’s of a stress-related heart attack.

This story was told by Elizabeth Loftus, a scientist who studies memory.  Ms. Loftus gives more examples on how our memories are faulty.  More to the point, our memories are most faulty when we are in a stressful situation, like that female victim was. She goes on to show how politicians, ad agencies, and the like, use this fact to manipulate others. What I’d like to focus on, instead, is how we can manipulate ourselves with false memories.

I have a story about my brother and father. My brother has a different story. My sister, who wasn’t actually present but heard about the incident has yet a different one.  Which is true? From my perspective, I was attempting to save a situation; my brother was trying to escape it, and my sister may have been trying to support my brother and father.  We were seeing the event from quite different perspectives, and were focused on different things.  We were all excited and even anxious, and that no doubt leant weight to how we saw it.

Which of the stories is true?  I don’t know. I believe that parts of what I remember are true and objective; so does my brother.

That’s one of my childhood stories.  Here’s another one: As a child, I wanted to get my mother a birthday gift and didn’t have any money.  It was early summer, the lilacs were coming into bloom, and I saw an opportunity.  I visited every yard in my neighborhood and cut a few lilac stems from each yard.  Then I went door to door selling back these lilacs.   At the time, I thought this idea was brilliant (and a little cheeky – my excuse being I was a kid), and I made enough to buy Mom her gift.  I like that memory, and remember it whenever I feel stumped.

I have other childhood memories that aren’t as pleasant, and that can bring up feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.  But if I can change the perspective, even a little, those stories cease to trouble me and get in my way.

Part of who we are, are our stories. Our stories provide a powerful context for how we see ourselves.  So it makes sense that if we change that context, we also change who we are. For instance, let’s say a child was hit by a stranger, and managed to crawl into something the stranger couldn’t reach.  If that child remembered the event with the man as huge and all-powerful, and him – the boy – as small and powerless, that will impact him and his life in one way.  If instead he remembered the event as the man being huge and brutish, and him – the boy – as smart and resourceful, that will impact in a completely different way.

Same story.  Which is true?

We all have childhood stories.  Some are empowering and some aren’t.  We have the power to change our perspective on the disempowering stories, and thereby improve our lives.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.

Toni Morrisson, Song of Solomon

 

Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .

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