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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Wakeup - Are Your Memories Real?

I'm going to start a column called Wednesday Wakeup...although, at this point today, it could be called Wednesday Wind Down....But regardless, I'm going to be throwing out some interesting ideas that will make  you rethink your family history.

An interesting article published last year in Wired Magazine, confronts our misconceptions about memory. This lengthy article's real purpose is to propose means by which people may be able to rid themselves of painful memories in the future. This in itself would be a debatable prospect. While painful memories hurt, I believe they create who we are and generally strengthen us. However, in certain circumstances of course, painful memories do haunt and torture people. I can understand the attempt to get rid of those kind of memories.

More importantly, however, the article describes how scientists are coming to understand the nature of memory and how it changes over time. The implications of this new understanding of memory can certainly impact what we think about all those family stories and memories we hear from our relatives.

I won't go into the heavy biological science of this article, but the process of creating and remembering a memory is biological activity in the brain. Scientists found a way to block protein synthesis in the brains of rats, and when they should have remembered something that harmed them, they didn't. It is this biological process which creates and recreates our memories.

So here's the catch, the scientists believe that every time we remember something - say a birthday party, a big vacation or a traumatic event, like a death in the family - we aren't just pulling those memories up from our stored memory exactly as they happened, or even exactly as we remembered them. Our brain erases that memory and then records it again. But in the second, third, fourth or fiftieth recording, we are gradually changing that memory. For instance, say we remember the death of a loved one. But in experiencing that death when it happened versus remembering it years later after the trauma has faded away, we may record different aspects of that memory, and even different emotions associated with that memory.

The scientists in charge of these studies indicate that surveys done of people who experienced first hand the 9/11 tragedy, showed how their stories decayed over time to a point where some people even put themselves in different places when the tragedy occurred. This was all without their knowing they were doing this.

So what's important about this article? Can you even trust anybody's memory at some point? That's hard to say. I always believe that some kernel of truth lies in family stories, but depending on how long ago those stories occurred, that kernel might be very small. Just imagine  how much change has occurred in a story passed down 2 ,3 or more generations, with every person innocently modifying it every time they replayed that memory in their head.

For me, I'm going to continue to enjoy family stories, I think they add depth and fun to family history. But it makes one wonder if it shouldn't be classified as historical fiction?

I'll leave you with an ominous quote from the story:

"In the very near future, the act of remembering will become a choice."

"The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever," Jonah Lehrer; Wired Magazine, Feb 12, 2012, online at:

Copyright © 2013 Matt Mapes

1 comment:

  1. Memories of a single event are also different for each person involved. My brothers & I sometimes discuss times past. We tell somewhat different stories of the same event. We had different points of view when it happened & I'm sure we remember it in different ways. I remember my father & his brothers having loud 'discussions' about events in their past, each brother claiming he was right.