Tuesday, March 12, 2013


I have a very poor memory of my childhood years. I was recently reading a blog by someone, reminiscing about their schooldays when they were just ten years old or so. They were able to recall such detail! I have nothing more than a few vague impressions of my childhood, with the exception of one or two key moments that stay with me.

I must admit that I wonder, sometimes, if people really do remember, or whether they tend to confabulate. Could it be that they mix a few vague memories with things they have been told by parents and siblings, with the aid of a few photographs, and constructively fill in the gaps with a little creative writing? Of course, people will never be persuaded that that’s the case, and it may not be. It is something beyond the realms of proof. But there are motivations for the conviction that these are genuine recollections that make me a little suspicious.

First of all, they certainly seem real to the person. We tend to trust our mind, whether it be with regard to the immediate perceptions that it is processing, or the images from our past that it is presenting to us. This is a good first principle on which to base life. It would be a very chaotic life if none of our perceptions or memories could be relied upon. Yet we know that both our perceptions and our memories can be mistaken. The suspicion that our memories are not as picture perfect as we would like to imagine is strongly reinforced by the fact that people recall the same events very differently. Memories are selective and they are subjective. They are also subject to reinterpretation, reevaluation and even rewriting in the light of later experiences. They also tend to fade over time. We do not like this, so we try to fill in the gaps.

The other motivation for believing that our memories are accurate is the oft-repeated claim that we are our memories. Fortunately, I don’t believe that this is true, at least not completely. I stand to be corrected by experts here (not by Hollywood or other fictional accounts of memory loss), but I don’t think that memory loss automatically results in personality change. In other words, despite a loss of memory, Jack remains Jack and Jill remains Jill, at least to a large extent. I am more than my memories. This is good news, because, despite the fact that people make statements such as, “We will always have our memories”, and “The only thing I have left is my memories”, neither of these statements is entirely true. Age alone brings memory loss, and Altzheimer’s even more so. It is comforting to know that I remain even if my memories do not. Something of me remains, at least.

There is certain to be a spectrum amongst people with respect to their ability to remember the more distant past. No doubt some have excellent recall, while others, like me, have very poor recall. Unfortunately the claims of someone to have excellent recall will rarely, if ever, be provable. I will, therefore, hold just a smidgen of scepticism in the corner of my mind. Nevertheless, the recollections make for good stories. Some of us even confabulate for a living.


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