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Memories – An accurate reflection of your past? Or a trick-mirror of your experiences?

Writes Eoghan O’Donnell, Deputy Features Editor

You are telling a story, a recollection of a moment important to you, detailing it to your extended family, only to have your sibling interrupt you saying, ‘that’s not right, it went like this …’, much to your frustration. Scenarios like this occur regularly, and memories that we rely upon to survive and form our personal identities often turn out to be inaccurate or biased in their representation of the truth. 

Memory is reliant on the chemical and electrical workings inside your mind that withhold and later retrieve information for you to refer back to. Memories are essential, they help us not only to survive on a basic physical level, but also to help us progress into more wisened people. Memories also provide us with a continuity of sorts to ensure we can piece together what is past into the present, and use this to help deal with the future. 

Yet, memories are tricky. Think of the happiest moment of your life, or of a time quite stressful and traumatic. You can likely recall these moments more vividly than a regular mundane Wednesday last October. Studies have shown that these so-called ‘Flashbulb Memories,’ the term used to coin these memories most striking for us, are often factually incorrect. 

It is theorised, and generally accepted by most, that the further we move away from memory the more nebulous it becomes. Malcolm Gladwell (author of Talking to Strangers, Outliers among others) notes that the more we retrieve a memory, the more it opens itself up to change. When we discuss memories with people, and they interrupt to say something like ‘the green jacket you were wearing had a coffee stain on it,’ it is likely you’ll implement this detail into your memory, even if it may not be true. There is also the instance of us jumbling subsequent memories together into one, like that time you went on holidays and remembered eating in a restaurant, then going to a water park later that day, only to be informed you actually went to the water park the previous day. 

Memory Contamination

Things like this all prove that memory is pretty malleable, which also means it can be easily manipulated. Memory is never pristine, and cannot be recalled exactly – we give only rough estimations of what happened most of the time after an event has passed. Contamination occurs easily, causing distortion and alterations. 

People who may have witnessed a crime are often interviewed afterward to give accounts of what occurred. Suppose the interviewer has a preconceived notion of what happened. In that case, a stressed person giving an account can sometimes be emotionally coerced into recalling something that may not have happened. People are especially vulnerable to confessing crimes they did not commit when under immense stress or acute forms of trauma. A famous example is the confession of Huwe Burton of New York City, a sixteen-year-old still in shock from discovering his mother’s murdered body in his family-apartment. After a lengthy period of threatening and coaxing by New York City Police, he confessed to the murder. He later recanted his confession knowing he was innocent and had been forced into thinking and confessing to committing the crime.

Memory Unlocking and Retrieval 

False memories can sometimes be formulated when people are subjected to mass-media coverage surrounding a particular event: there are many accounts of people, young and old, convinced they saw the collapse of the Twin Towers first-hand, only to realise later that they were at home watching the events unfold on television. 

It is common for traumatic memories to be hidden away in the depths of our consciousness for months or years before they are remembered. Certain stimuli often trigger memories such as these, and something as innocuous as a colour or smell can cause memories to arise in our consciousness and essentially be unlocked. These triggers might make a person re-live a particularly stressful situation from a previous time in their life, and cause the person to lose track of what is going on around them. Michaela Coel explores her own experience of sexual-assault through her latest show “I May Destroy You.” An image that lingers in the protagonist Arabella’s memory will prove key to her unlocking the experience of sexual assault. It is only by closely examining this shred of memory and retracing her steps on the particular night of her attack which enables her to unlock the entire memory and identify her assailant. 

Alcohol and Memory

Gladwell notes in his book that college students fall into the age group of those who blackout most frequently from drinking. The section of the brain responsible for memory formation, called the hippocampus, is inhibited when a person drinks alcohol too quickly, or consumes too much of it throughout the course of a night. An ‘en bloc’ blackout refers to a total blackout, in which a person is incapable of recalling any information. A ‘fragmentary blackout’ is the term referred to that experience when you can remember certain, but not all, sections of a drinking experience (such as only being able to remember that stumble home college road). When the hippocampus is suppressed from alcohol, a person can still function more or less normally (for a drunk person that is) and be able to have full conversations and order more drinks at the bar, but is likely to have little to no recollection of it the next day (cheers to The Fear). As a side note, blacking out makes a person quite vulnerable, so it is always important to ensure to look after your friends if you suspect this happening.

Our memory is an intrinsic part of who we are. It helps us to survive and creates our personalities. It helps form our connections with others and relate to the collective human experience. However, our memory can sometimes be quite temperamental, which is why we must always exercise caution recalling potentially important events. Be wary of your memories, they are as likely to betray you as a traitor.