February 7, 2014
Our memories are tricky things. On the one hand, we are able to recall precious childhood memories of seemingly little importance. On the other hand, how clearly are you able to recall all that you did yesterday? No, I am not talking about a summary of what you did yesterday; I mean really remember it. What were you thinking about? Who all did you talk to? What did you see? What songs did you listen to? On that note, what were you thinking about only a few minutes before you started reading this? It can be hard to recall. We like to think of our memories as video cameras, able to record information that we can recall, or “play back,” later, but this is often harder to do than we think. No, there is nothing wrong with you. That is just how our memories work.
A recent study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, led by postdoctoral fellow in medical social sciences, Donna Jo Bridge, shows that rather than simply recording data like a camera, our minds actually edit our memories — rewriting our own pasts with current information and more recent experiences. For an example of this, Donna Jo Bridge uses the cliché of “love at first sight.” According to her, “When you think back to when you met your current partner, you may recall this feeling of love and euphoria. But you may be projecting your current feelings back to the original encounter with this person. Our memory is not like a video camera. Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world. It’s built to be current.” In the experiment, 17 individuals (both men and women) studied 168 different object locations on a computer screen with different backgrounds. Then, researchers asked participants to try and place the object in the original location, but on a different background screen. The participants always placed the objects in the wrong spot. Then, for the final part of the experiment, participants were shown the object in three different locations on the original screen and asked to choose which one was right. The choices were the location they originally saw the object, the location they had placed it on the different screen back in part two of the experiment, and a single brand new spot. According to Bridge “People always chose the location they picked in part two. This shows their original memory of the location has changed to reflect the location they recalled on the new background screen. Their memory has updated the information by inserting the new information into the old memory.” During this test, the participants were in an MRI scanner, which allowed scientists to observe the subjects’ brain activity. They also tracked eye movements, which were said to sometimes be more revealing about the content of their memories, and conflict in their choices, than the location they ended up choosing. Of course, all of this research was done in a controlled setting, but Bridge believes that it is a reasonable assumption that memories work like this in everyday scenarios as well.
This does not make our memories any less precious. Our memories are what define us and make us who we are. Sure, you can debate that in the sense of “nature vs. nurture” all you want, but I truly believe that it is our experiences that shape us. Sure, we might not always remember them clearly or even correctly, apparently, but they are still there. They are still what give us the briefest of windows into our own past that no one else is ever able to see, and that has got to count for something.
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