Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

What really happened? Editing our memories


“Memory actually works more like a Wikipedia page,” says [forensic psychologist Elizabeth] Loftus. “You can go into your page and change things. But so can other people.”

I’ve known or suspected this since I was very young and became aware that I couldn’t really trust my own memory, and had to be equally suspicious of other people’s. In my first major research project as a sociologist, I interviewed dozens of Cubans  — mostly former laborers or artisans — who had just made the leap to the U.S., ten years after the famous “triumph of the Revolution”, to find out why and how they had done this. The challenge was to work  through the inevitable distortions and ellipses, especially their tendency to repeat the superficial prefabricated slogan that they all had been seeking “libertad” — a concept of no precise meaning — to discover what had been the key events to turn them away from the revolution that had been made in their name.

That was actually much easier than the forensic work of Dr. Loftus, where the psychological implications of memories, true or false, can involve deep shame. With the recent Cuban émigrés, any sense of shame for having abandoned the homeland (and friends and family) was thinly masked by references to libertad or dignidad, proclaimed as higher values than those other slogans of revolución and patria. But once they’d said that, it was possible to get them to describe the particular events that had provoked emigration. A dispute with a chief at work, tensions with the local Comité de Defensa de la Revolución demanding extra work, an argument with a spouse or girlfriend, discomfort over newly enlarged rights of women or of blacks, or in one or two cases because of intolerance of one’s homosexuality, were among those particular events. Our interviews were long enough and relaxed enough, in an unthreatening environment (I was not a government agent empowered to grant or deny them anything), that I felt there was little distortion intended to impress me in any particular way. But in every case, the story told was a reconstruction, the incidents chosen and described in ways to salvage the individual’s pride.

My awareness of this memory-editing problem has been one of my motives for keeping a journal of thoughts and events of the day. This has turned out to be very handy, whenever — weeks or months later — we need to “remember” something, and evidence of my (and everybody’s) tendency to “misremember”.

My other motive for keeping a journal, more important than record-keeping, has been to sort out my thoughts, as I’m doing here right now. Because I see my weblog as a kind of journal, I resist the temptation to go back to edit past entries, even when I see that I said something I no longer believe or that now sounds foolish; it’s a kind of personal research project, to see how my own thinking evolves.

I recommend this article and interview of Elizabeth Loftus, who knows a lot about memories and editing:

Investigating False Memories | Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

* Illustration: ZME Science, “Scientists erase memory (and then reactivate it) in rats”

From ZME Science*