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Recalling Memories

March 9, 2013

Recalling a memory is just like replaying a video recording of an event.  It’s accurate and complete, exactly the same each time.  It cannot be altered.  It’s correct and true.  That is our conventional concept of memories.  It turns out that memories are not at all like that.

Memories are an illusion created by our mind.  They only seem to be true and complete because our mind creates them that way.  We really only remember fragments of an event.  Our mind fills in the rest.  That way, we re-experience the event.  It’s the same mechanism in the mind that we use to experience reality.  The only difference is the source of the information.  Memories are always reconstructed.  They can be altered or even implanted.  Memories even change subtly each time they are recalled.

We now have experimental evidence of how memories really work.  Elizabeth Loftus has devoted years of research to false memories.  Jonah Lehrer, in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, describes how recalling a memory from long-term storage also recreates the memory.  As it’s recalled again and again, it gradually becomes more personal and more emotional.

This new view of memories has far-reaching consequences.  The truth that we relied on becomes unreliable.  Eye-witness testimony at trials can be incorrect, as in this example.  Interrogation can introduce false memories.  People’s lives can be ruined by false accusations, based on memories that seem perfectly real.

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  1. Not Total Recall | jgmills

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