Several days ago I posted a story about a fun moment I had gaming with a roommate nearly ten years ago. While I haven’t lived with that many people, and the ones I have tended to overlap to some degree, I honestly can’t remember with which roommate I had that experience. Even without all of the details, it’s a fun moment and I still enjoy telling the story of being banned from a gaming server for killing the administrator.
The inspiration for this particular entry comes from the reaction that piece had among my friends – two different people, both of whom had been my long-term roommates, exclaimed they remembered the situation/story clearly and looked back fondly on it. I may not be clear on which one of the two were actually with me when it took place, but I know for a certainty it couldn’t have been both of them. The story had been circulating throughout our group of friends for so long that two different people “remembered” it happening to them. The idea of false memories is, to me, a frightening one, because it points out that we genuinely can’t trust our own recollections.
Thinking about the stories we tell ourselves, and how often we re-tell them, the idea does however make sense. The brain doesn’t generally care whether something is objectively true or not, it just remembers what it’s been told over and over again. The more a story is told the more familiar it becomes, and the more “true” it will feel. There are certain stories from my past that I don’t tell any more, because honestly I’ve lost perspective of whether they actually happened to me or if they’re just reconstructions (side note: nothing particularly bad, I just want to be more factual when speaking).
An example I have from my own life is the story of my father’s water polo team. When I was young my family had the very fortunate opportunity to visit the island of Oahu – I want to say it was for a water polo tournament, but maybe it was just organized by some of my dad’s water polo buddies. I will swear to this day that I can remember my dad and his friends sitting down at a Sizzler and eating the place out of shrimp. After a long day of tournament play, the entire team ordered the “endless shrimp plate” and ate the restaurant out of their weekly supply.
The thing is, this story never happened to me. Yes, my family did go to Hawai’i, but we never ate at a Sizzler, and we never ate a restaurant out of shrimp. It turns out that in my father’s telling of events that happened to him in college, they got jumbled up in my recollection and transposed into my own life. This is an event I know didn’t happen, but I can remember it all the same, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
Over the past year or more I’ve had the opportunity to do some real self-reflection, many of the musings on which end up on this blog. In that time I’ve really tried to take a hard look at the things I remember “for certain,” and plumb the actual truth of the matter. I think critical thinking is a key life skill that needs to be practiced and refined or it goes stale, and it’s easy to just accept things we “know” and move on.
I suppose the big takeaway is to ask multiple people what they remember from an event, and try to compare how the stories differ. It may give you a different take on the idea of “eyewitness testimony,” and even on your own memories.