Cloudiness of a not so spotless mind

Every family seems to have stories that are told and retold. It is interesting to me is how different members of the same family tell a story. Siblings recall different aspects of major events in their family life. Sometimes by their stories are so different one wonders if they are telling about the same event. There are the family storytellers whose versions become just a little more embellished with each telling.

My sisters and I have had heated discussions about the facts of our family history. We each know the story. We were there and remember the precise details. The other sisters’ memories must be faulty. We are each sure we remember exactly what happened. Is it possible that our individual recollections have melted, morphed and changed, or are the others simply mistaken or trying to make us look bad?

Researchers are finding that memories are, indeed, fluid and changeable. Our relatives are not deliberately making up details. Every time we think about an event in our past, the memory is revised slightly. Our present emotions change how we think about our past. Perhaps the versions told us by others also alter our own memories. Our memories are not permanent, indelible snapshots of events in our past. No wonder family reunions sometimes break out in fist fights.

Neuroscientists and psychologists point to this elasticity of memory as opening up possibilities for treating mental illness, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and possibly even some kinds of dementia. Treatment might gradually alter the traumatic events or replace them with less distressing memories and give patients some relief from reliving traumatic experiences.

The idea sounds eerily similar to the 2004 science fiction movie, “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,” which starred Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. The main characters have paid a mind-erasing company to wipe their memories of their prior failed relationship. They meet each other again and are inexplicably attracted to one another. Of course, they don’t remember having their memories erased and become repeat customers of the mind cleansing company.

The premise of the movie and the research into how we remember things raises important questions.

Are my sisters’ memories of that Christmas in 1955 when our grandfather played Santa Claus right or are mine? Or, are we all wrong? If what we remember about our life changes every time we think about it, doesn’t that change a bit of our identity? Doesn’t how we think about ourselves and about how we reacted to the events of our life affect who we think we are? Does that change even further how we remember our lives? Do we alter our memories over time to make them less painful? Are eyewitness accounts of an event valuable? Does this psychological finding account for the differing stories told following a shooting or an accident? Are immediate recollections more accurate than long term memories or do we recall more real details after a time?

As for most scientific discoveries, this insight into how we remember things should be used carefully. If we could erase all the painful things we remember, would we? Would that make us happier or would it just make us less empathetic? If we can erase painful, traumatic memories, might we also be able to erase inconvenient ones?

If I retell my versions of family stories frequently enough, might I change others’ memories to coincide with mine? Mine, after all, are accurate because I can envision the events exactly as they happened…or can I?

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains