“True story.” Once upon a time, I knew a man who would preface all of his tales this way. “True story.” Those two words, oh and the twinkle in his eye, would get your attention, but what would you actually hear? A true story . . . or a story with a pinch of truth thrown in?
I love how Wiki describes our brains’ ability to collect what’s happening right under our noses: “Memories of events are always a mix of factual traces of sensory information overlaid with emotions, mingled with interpretation and ‘filled in’ with imaginings.”
Truth is cagey. It lies (ha) out there, among us, as elusive as the meaning behind many of Hip frontman Gord Downie’s captivating lyrics. He sang, “My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?” to millions of spellbound Canadians (and a few Americans) Saturday night. And while it’s pretty clear what Gord was referring to there – hanging out in New Orleans will muddy the memory – anyone’s memory, even on a good day, can be as murky as the Mississippi, or the Thames, River.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who studies false memory, says people are wrong to believe the brain works like a recording device. “Memory works more like a Wikipedia page,” she says. “You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”
She’s done numerous studies in which her team has distorted, or changed, memory based on questions with insinuating words, or by feeding people misinformation. Ask participants about a film showing a collision of two vehicles and use the word “smashed” instead of “hit”? Respondents will recall broken glass, even though there wasn’t any.
Loftus became particularly concerned in the 90s when psychotherapy techniques such as imagination exercises, dream interpretation, and hypnosis led to claims of repressed memories of childhood abuses, even bizarre recollections of participation in demonic rituals with no physical proof. This prompted the development of the “lost in the mall” experiment by one of Loftus’s students. When participants were given short narratives describing actual childhood events (provided by family members) and a false one about being lost in the mall, 25% recalled being lost in the mall.
Loftus has been criticized for experiments in which she’s improved people’s eating habits by tampering with their food memories – negative for unhealthy foods, positive for healthy foods – but she doesn’t see the harm in using our ability to create false memories for good reasons.
“Most people cherish their memories,” she says, “They know that they represent their identity, who they are, where they came from and I appreciate that. I feel that way too, but I know from my work how much fiction is already in there.”
What about when the memory bank is blank? You can’t even dredge up a bit of fiction? Has that happened to you? I was just yakking away about a long ago trip with a friend at my backyard Hip party. He says, “Remember when that cop pulled us over ‘cause we had the map spread out over the front of the motor home? And he said, ‘Come on. You can’t drive like that.’ And then Teddy? Remember he picked up that girl at that bar where Hughie was talking to the Americans about the po-lar bears up in Canada? And turns out that girl had her child sleeping in her vehicle the whole time?” No. Blank. What do I remember about that road-trip to Minnesota? Two things. I have pictures of both. Watching the guys cliff-jump into muddy water. Skateboarding and falling. Do you know cement has absolutely no give to it?
Which brings me to my next point. Working memory. Says Peter Doolittle in his TED Talk on the topic, “The problem that we have is that life comes at us and it comes at us very quickly.”
Working memory is limited and small – the “size of a pea” says Doolittle – and unless we do something with information coming at us, by applying it, talking about it, we lose it. We need to process our lives repeatedly and immediately to extrapolate meaning and since our brains are built for imagery, capturing pictures in our minds, or in actual photographs – as I did with that mostly lost trip – helps us retain information and memories.
Doolittle says that most think we need to relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, but he feels we should spin that around. “We want to take all of our existence and wrap it around that new knowledge and make all of these connections and it becomes more meaningful.”
Processing life enables you to live it to the fullest. Get in the habit of doing that, and then the next time you tell a “true story”? You may even have a good handle on what is true, and what is fiction.