How real are your memories?

By Carol / February 11, 2014 /

Research indicates our brains edit the past to accommodate present views.


When we build a new memory, we gather little bits of information and store them together, say researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Then, when we bring up an old memory, those bits of information are melded with new bits relevant to present life. The resulting “memory” may be far from the event that actually happened.

The research, shared in an article in USAToday this past weekend, makes me re-think the accuracy of memoirs.

When I wrote the stories of a happy childhood in my memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY, many of the memories were as clear in my mind as if the events had happened last week instead of fifty years ago.

Though I have no doubt my childhood was happy and I’m comfortable with that picture, another memoir I wrote but didn’t publish covers the years of my first marriage. My first marriage included plenty of happy times, but the memoir dealt with those times that were not.

When I began to write those stories, I couldn’t remember much at all. The process of pulling those memories out of the deep recesses of my mind was difficult and often painful.

I felt devastating conflict between what I remembered and the way I viewed myself. In the course of the writing and with the caring support of my writing partners, the memories – and perhaps more important – my interpretation of those memories, adapted.

According to the Northwestern researchers, the brain’s ability to edit to current circumstances may explain why we can be convinced something happened when it didn’t.

In writing about my first marriage, I came to realize that certain things that I was convinced had happened could not have. They were a logistical impossibility. Yet, I was as convinced that those stories were true as I am that my childhood was happy.

Our memories are “a record of our current view of the past,” says Donna Rose Addis of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Addis suggests the Northwestern University research has implications for understanding imagination.

I would say so! As a writer, I recognize there are many “truths.” I realize that each of us gets to tell our own story, yet I feel an obligation to be as close to factual accuracy as I can when I write memoir.

With research like this shining a light on how the brain works, I am left to wonder: are the memories I’ve had stored in the dusty corners of my mind accurate? Are the adapted memories that emerged as I wrote accurate? Or have I simply created a memory I can live with today.

What do you think my friends? How accurate can our memories be? How accurate do you believe writers need to be?

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  1. Sharon Lippincott on February 11, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Carol, you’ve hit on a topic I’ve been chewing on for a couple of months. My current fascinated obsession began with a memory, real or imagined, about how Larry, my grad school mentor, who was a early explorer of what’s today known as New Age Thinking, kept insisting he was a figment of my imagination. I did not grasp the corollary he also shared, that I was a figment of his. How could that be? How could we “imagine” each other? I had shaken his hand — we even hugged good-bye now and then. It felt real enough. How could I imagine that?

    All these years later I realize that I imagined meanings, intentions, significance. I didn’t know what was “really” going on in his head. I don’t “really” know anyone — I know what I assume about them. They are, in fact, a figment of my imagination, based more or less loosely on what I see and hear. But the way I put those perceptions together … very personal Seriously imaginative. And what a shock when my imagined person doesn’t always behave in accordance with my expectations of that figment. What a nuisance to have to edit my story!

    Story. Life is one big story, with characters and circumstances that change with shifting light. Thank you Larry for planting seeds that bloom as insight over thirty years later.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Wow! What an interesting way to look at this, Sharon. The idea that anyone is a product of our imagining what they think, know or do, causes me to have to move at least 45 degrees to the side and look at all people, relationships, and my memory of them from a new angle. That’s worth more than a little thought. Thanks!

      • Sharon Lippincott on February 11, 2014 at 2:02 pm

        I imagine Larry, bald as a baby’s butt now, with sagging body and soaring soul, sitting in lotus position, smiling like Buddha.

        • Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2014 at 2:26 pm

          Now that’s letting your imagination soar! I like Larry more with each passing minute.

          • Shirley Hershey Showalter on February 20, 2014 at 9:25 am

            Figment or fig leaf? What an interesting conversation. I like Larry too!


          • Carol Bodensteiner on February 20, 2014 at 10:20 am

            Some of our memories and imaginations may use both, Shirley!

  2. Mary Gottschalk on February 11, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    An endlesslly fascinating topic. What we remember depends on so many factors … where we were standing in relation to the action or event … what emotional or social “baggage” we were carrying at the time … what we were expecting to see … and the many ways that the selective retelling of the memory can change what we once remembered. I will check out the study!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      You’re right, Mary, there are any factors that come into play with regard to what we remember. I’ve often said I wished I had a video camera running on certain events so I could go back and see what actually happened, what was actually said. What struck me about this study was that it says our mind proactively adds new information to the memory so it conforms to our present day view. That went way beyond what I already knew to be happening.

  3. Elfrieda Schroeder on February 12, 2014 at 9:09 am

    While reading your blog post I was reminded of a recent book Hans Werner has written about hIs father’s life called “The Deconstructed Mennonite”. It’s an interesting account of one man’s use of selective memory.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      I expect we all are guilty of selective memory from time to time, Elfrieda. Writing a book that focuses on that perspective has some interesting implications. How did you view Werner’s take on his father? And the Mennonite faith?

  4. paulette mahurin on February 12, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Interesting post, especially in light of the fact that my next book deals with repressed memories. It’s also interesting watching what happens to my relationship with my husband about who we think is “right” in remembering something in the not too distant past. We’ve become more humbled about saying, “I’m not sure” which helps keep the peace. The mind is so powerful in all it does, not just about fact modification from then to now but how it creates realities out of thin air, etc. This whole topic of yours is of great interest to me. Thanks and hugs. Paulette

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 12, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      I’ve always been in awe of what our minds can do. This research also makes me a little frightened that my mind may be doing more manipulating of my memories than I ever imagined.

      I’m skeptical of people who speak with complete confidence about some past event, in part because I’ve found my own *flawless* memory to be faulty on so many occasions. That you and your husband are both able to say “I’m not sure” speaks to love, trust, and humility, Paulette. Your next book topic sounds interesting.

  5. Janet Givens on February 12, 2014 at 10:31 am

    “As a writer, I recognize there are many “truths.” I realize that each of us gets to tell our own story, yet I feel an obligation to be as close to factual accuracy as I can when I write memoir.” Two thoughts come to mind, Carol. One is that your statement is a great summary of why “eye witness” accounts are so often way off-base. Five different people can see the same accident and present five different scenarios when quesitoned. The other thought is that even with my own story, as a memoirist, I can tell it so many ways, so many different angles, voices even, perspectives. Choosing ONE and staying with it has been a challenge for me from the start. WHICH is the story I want to tell. (And I”m only talking two years in my adult life; not a whole childhood). There are, indeed, many truths. Good to keep in mind. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 12, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      As writers, we do have powerful decisions to make, Janet. And as they say in Spiderman, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’

      Paulette commented that acknowledging ‘I’m not sure’ when it comes to the facts of a situation has made her and her husband humble. Knowing that there are many truths should make us equally humble. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Kathleen Pooler on February 13, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Hi Carol, This is an interesting and important topic for anyone writing memoir–are my memories reliable? It seems to me that when we write we have the opportunity to reframe our narrative. In other words, there is healing in the writing and we therefore may view past behaviors in a new light. It seems the key is to be able to retrieve the memories from a past time and be able to stick as close to the truth as possible while also dealing with the changes in perspective that have occurred over the years. I remember reading a post by Mary Karr where she stated,being committed to the “essence of the truth”is more important than recalled every detail perfectly. Very relevant post and discussion. Thank you!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 13, 2014 at 1:54 pm

      So many factors come into play with memories, Kathy. We do (hopefully) heal in the writing. We also accumulate life experiences by which we grow that may frame past events in new ways even before we begin to write. Karr’s “essence of the truth” is a worthwhile goal. Of course even that essence is just one person’s essence. Other people involved in those same events would have their own essence of the truth. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  7. Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle) on February 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Some great insights here. I especially like what Sharon said about our imagination even in the present. Basically whatever is happening right now is being interpreted and filtered by our active imaginations, so that even the data that is going INTO the mind is already modified by our point of view. Imagine what processing goes on in the years that go by and how it comes out again as a memory.

    No wonder there are epic family fights over events long gone by. I like what Paulette says about being humble and admitting you’re not sure. Because even if you’re sure it went down one way for you, it definitely didn’t go down that way for the other person.

    We can actually never ever know what the other person is really experiencing. In essence our internal life is very lonely.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 14, 2014 at 11:28 am

      I’ve found the discussion, fascinating, too, Rachelle. Because of what you say – “We can actually never ever know what the other person is really experiencing.” – I really try to cut people slack when they say or do things that seem out of line to me.

  8. Grace Peterson on February 14, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Hi Carol,

    I don’t know if I can add anything more to this conversation except to say that I appreciate that researchers are continuing to study this topic.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 15, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Me, too, Grace. Our brains are so complex my guess is researchers will never run out of aspects to study. As a result, we’ll have an endless supply of things to blog about!

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