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DumbSwede's Journal: False Memories in Real Time

Journal by DumbSwede
My wife and I enjoy watching the Chinese mini-series "A Taste of China." How clearly I can recall the English narration, spoken in a deep baritone voice and with a strong, but easy to understand, Chinese accent. The narrator's voice, style, and cadence are all very professional -- the only problem with this memory is that it is totally false.

My wife and I were watching the series online on YouTube with our daughter and she asked me to get something from the kitchen. There had been a pause in the narration and while I was in the kitchen it began again. This time though there was no pleasant Chinese accented English, but unintelligible Mandarin. I was startled for a second, then remembered I had been reading subtitles. I returned to the table and continued watching the program. As I sat I was aware I was listening to Mandarin and I was reading subtitles, but the second I reached into my memory to recall what had just happened the English narration returned.

If I had not had this realization and had you asked me a year from now had I watched the series I would have been convinced I had listened to an English dubbed version. This may not seem like a false memory in the traditional sense, I had merely converted the subtitles into an easier to remember and integrate English narrative, but it illustrates how malleable our memories are. My unconscious mind knows I do not know Mandarin and yet I remember words of the narration. I don't believe it was merely being lazy, but resolving the paradox by inventing the remembered narrator's voice.

Sometimes our perception of an event is in conflict with what seems to be fact. Rather than flag the contradiction it seems our memory will often edit the memory to be whatever our subconscious feels to be the most likely internally consistent explanation. None of this is news. However just like 90% of all drivers think they are in the top 10% of safe drivers, most of us believe our memory of events to be superior to those around us. We are startled when our recollections differ and often assume malice or ulterior motives in those who misremember what we remember.

We probably all know someone who either thinks they are never wrong or have a far more altruistic explanation for some past behavior that on the surface seemed quite self-serving or selfish. We intuitively believe their memories are false (which they probably are). We then give ourselves a mental pat on the back for not living in such a self-deluded state. Obviously our own memories are as infallible and as unyielding at the Rock of Gibraltar. The only trouble is that everyone's memory is fallible -- memories are in constant reedit. Evolution didn't evolve memory to be accurate, evolution evolved memory to be useful. Memory is therefore a repository of non-contradictory facts (also non-contradictory as we perceive or wish our personality to be). As new facts become evident, old memories are revised to fit with the facts. Sometimes this can even make them more accurate, say looking at an old photograph and remembering more accurately the Members Only jacket you use to own (a fact your stylish new self may have edited out).

Unfortunately our desire to be part of a clan or to please others can be the motivation to reedit the facts in our memory. We know that lying is wrong, but if our memory is in conflict with what allows us to have what we want, then memory is often what needs to be changed.

I think it would be the truly rare individual whose head isn't full of false memories. The best we can do is to be aware that memories are not the concrete remembrance of past that they seem. Evolution has probably installed a chalkboard in our head not a printing press. Be cautious of believing only what you see on the board.
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False Memories in Real Time

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