Doubtful News editor and fellow cryptozoology critic Sharon Hill has a new post up at her Huffington Post: Weird News column on the topic of the fallibility of memory—and on the very serious implications of that fallibility upon eyewitness testimony, whether of Bigfoot, Satantic Ritual Abuse, or regular everyday crime. Most everyone who follows the skeptical literature (or of course the psychological literature) is to some degree aware that memory is fluid, dynamic, creative stuff by its nature. (I’ve written about the fluidity and impermanence of memory myself.)
Yet knowing that memory is constructed is different from knowing it as a visceral fact about our personal experience of reality. Like the knowledge of death, it’s a dizzying truth that we use in rhetoric, yet shrink away from in our inner minds: none of our memories are entirely real. They’re all simulations, “based on a true story” recreations—except for those that are altogether fictional. Our childhood home. The kiss of our first love. That epic, life-changing adventure we know we will never forget. Our cries of despair. The joy of a wedding, a discovery, a birth. Moments of grief. Moments of hope. The truth is that all of our past experiences are gone, never to be savored again.
We humans are storytelling animals. This extent of this storytelling goes deeper than we can easily hold in our minds. Our very existential continuity is a story we tell ourselves.
Sharon takes up this theme in her matter-of-fact style:
One of the major disconnects between those who practice effective skepticism and those who believe in paranormal possibilities (or are emotionally invested in unexplained mysteries) is over the topic of anecdotes and witnesses’ testimony.
If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble.
Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.
Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing.
Most of us rely on our short- and long-term memories nearly every moment of the day. For the most part, our recollections are simple and good enough to get us through situations and day-to-day activities without much trouble, but false memories are ubiquitous.