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  • Brendan Stec

How Things Were (or so we think)

Uncle Rico: Back in '82, I used to be able to throw a pig skin a quarter mile.

Kip: Are you serious?

Uncle Rico: I'm dead serious.


Uncle Rico: How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains? ... Yeah – if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we'd a been state champions. No doubt.

No doubt in my mind.

–​ Napoleon Dynamite (2004)


How good is our memory?

Those recollections that bother or entertain us from weeks or years ago – are they accurate representations of what actually happened, or are they a bit exaggerated, or worse – totally wrong? In 1902, one professor at the University of Berlin, distinguished criminologist Franz von Liszt, decided to test this hypothesis by employing one of the most bizarre methods imaginable.

Von Liszt had just finished his lecture one day when one of his students stood up and began shouting at him, disagreeing with his ideas. Another student got on his feet to defend von Liszt. After the first student whipped out a gun, the second charged at him, and as the students began fighting, von Liszt rushed over to the students to intervene as the rest of the panicked class backed away.

Then there was a gunshot. Von Liszt fell to the ground.

The lecture hall erupted into chaos and confusion. Was the professor killed? Who fired the shot? Should we tackle the belligerents?

Suddenly von Liszt straightened up and yelled at the class to settle down. Here was the twist: it was a staged quarrel. The fighting students were really actors, von Liszt confessed, and the entire altercation was merely a psychological experiment. The professor was now going to interview and quiz each of the students over the next few weeks on what they had just witnessed. The goal would be to gauge the reliability of their memory: could they accurately recall the crucial details of the altercation – days, weeks, and months after it happened?

The results of the experiment indicated that they were terrible eyewitnesses.

The students all had varying accounts of the story when they were eventually interviewed by von Liszt. Some claimed there had been blood everywhere after the "fight." Others said additional classmates were involved in the scuffle, when clearly only the actors and von Lizst had participated. Further analyzing the data, von Lizst concluded that many students got more than 50% of the key details completely wrong, and not one student told a completely accurate account of the altercation. Put to the test, their memories had failed them. (1)

Other studies in psychology draw similar conclusions about the human memory: it is often riddled with errors and misinterpretations. People forget key details and then fabricate or exaggerate the remaining ones to compensate and round out the story. Weddings are confused for birthday parties, Aunt Jeans become Aunt Joans, and local league championships morph into state championships.

In one fascinating study of memory, the psychology professor Ulric Neisser asked freshman college students to write down exactly what they did the morning of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, which had just occurred a few days earlier. Three years later, when these same students were seniors, he asked them to re-tell their stories. Comparing these new tales to the written truth, Neisser realized that not a single student told exactly the same story, and almost 25% of them told a completely different story –​ a wrong one –​ altogether. Some students refused to believe what they themselves had written down three years earlier as the true story. "Yes, that's my handwriting – but I still remember it the other way!", claimed one student. (2)

Regardless of how inaccurate people's memories truly are, they often remain strangely confident in their ability to recall the details of the past, what they said, how they felt, and what that must mean for the present moment.

It's a sobering but unfortunate truth that we forget most of the vivid details of what we experience in life, and that much of what remains of these memories is either slightly or totally inaccurate. That's actually ok: evolution has designed our memory to be just "good enough", since remembering every little detail of everything that has ever happened would not only be inefficient but torturous. Can you imagine remembering every awkward exchange, uncomfortable rejection, and brutal Ludacris lyric from your first middle school dance?

So thankfully, our memory kinda sucks.

But it kinda sucks to the point where it might be wise for us to ask ourselves the following: how much of what we remember about ourselves, our experiences, and others should we actually believe? And to what degree should we depend upon these memories to make the choices that impact our future?

We remember effortlessly winning the high school state championship – it was easily a 30 point victory... and maybe we could've even "gone Pro" as Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite would say – while forgetting that our team got several lucky breaks throughout the game and the opponent's best player was hurt.

We forget the real reasons we chose our most recent job. Hindsight gives us the "right" answer: we wanted "exposure" to a fast-growing "industry." The forgotten reality: it was the only job offer we got, loan payments were coming due and we needed the money, the recruiter said our tie looked nice at the interview and it made us feel good.

Psychotherapists sometimes tell their patients not to believe every thought that comes into their head. Those self-limiting or delusional ideas about ourselves or people we know. Are they based on objective truth? Years of hard data? Or are they based on fuzzy memories that may have papered-over the inconvenient or uncomfortable details?

Your mind tells you: you're terrible at numbers, you've never been good with people, you can or can't do this or that. Says who? The grouchy 10th grade Trigonometry teacher you had 15 years ago? Your maniacal ex from college? Your distorted memories of the past, feeding you equally distorted opinions of who you really are?

"Remembrance of things past," Marcel Proust wrote, "is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were."

Maybe we need a more skeptical assessment of our memory, our ability to recall who we were, what we did, and how that changed us for better or worse. Maybe the stories we tell ourselves and others about our successes and failures in the past aren't entirely true.

After all, those memories still impact how we feel today, and how we feel today impacts the choices that impact tomorrow.



(1) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow (pp. 60-61)

(2) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow (pp. 69-70)

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