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The Art of Memory is to Never Trust It’s Bullshit

The era I was born into held fast to certain ideas about memory and how it defined who you were as a person. For example, the idea that we record a running tape onto which time and space all but indelibly imprints itself for historic accuracy. The idea that Perry Mason could pick apart a person’s memory with an eye to exposing the truth. That events and conversations require black and white consensus, or someone is lying (the age-old he said, she said arguments). People still hold true to this outdated idea of memory regardless that science outright refutes it. Mostly because they don’t want to believe their memory is fallible. We equate our memories to the record of us as a human being.

Next came the metaphor where memories are stored in drawers and every time you open that drawer you rewrite the memory. This is how memories can be altered through revisiting the story over and over. Every time you talk about the memory where you saw a bear, that story mutates into another memory. This process can be influenced by others. Intelligent human beings have been freed after decades of incarceration by the State because the evidence finally proved they were not the killer; to this day they have the memory of the crime and the guilt of committing it. That speaks to exactly how strong a memory can be influenced by others.

In the realisation that memory is accessed and filed and re-accessed there is a worrying fragility given to the question of who we are as individuals. Because if we aren’t our persistent and immutable memories, if those memories can be shifted and shaped by ourselves and others, then how do we reconcile our story with any type of empirical reality?

And that’s the rub. We can’t. The truth as best we can ascertain at this point runs something like this: we are a story we tell ourselves that changes over time.

And what does it say about our court systems where an eye witness, or witnesses, are treated as the best type of evidence to present to an equally fallible jury? When eight or more witnesses can disagree about what was said and the order of actions at a given place and time… when science says all eight witnesses are likely to be incorrect in any empirical reality. All a jury trial is really looking for is a consensus of the facts, a tide of agreed events, or a story that generally corroborates the prosecution (or defence). This is exactly why we have two people walk away from a conversation remembering entirely different things… while, if there was that old recorder metaphor in action, we’d surely have just replayed the event for the Umpire.

The up side of this whole revelation about the impermanence and unreliability of memory is that it frees you to be yourself in this moment, unconstrained by how others remember, or what you remember. That’s the past; memory, in a sense, is just a story we construct about our past. When someone says, “I remember you” it’s time to consider what that implies. I’ve remembered people wrongly. I had a guy apologise for repeatedly stuffing my head in a toilet at HMAS Leeuwin when it simply wasn’t me; my room was up the hall, and I feel sorry for the poor kid who got that treatment. So, do you remember me? And how much of that is a conflation of other identities on mine, or things you said over and over, or what you believed to be true and inserted into that story. If I don’t know me, you certainly have no idea.

So, to finish on some advice, if you think you remember kindergarten… how do you know that memory is real? Did your parents tell it to you? Did you make it up in primary school? It’s much more likely that a false memory has established itself into your constructed story as that story changed over time. Because that’s what we do as humans. And if you think otherwise then I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. You are human and your memory is as flawed as the rest of us.

The advice is this: your memory versus somebody else’s memory is an outright waste of brain power. Here and now is all you have, buddy.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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