Can You Trust Your Memory?

Recently, I was discussing some events from a long time ago with a family member. I was surprised to find out that details I thought I very clearly remembered were incorrect. It got me thinking about the possibility of memory being untrustworthy. How is it possible to be so certain you remember something one way when it actually happened another? Or to be positive of certain people, places, or things, but have that information incorrect, as well?

It’s possible to confuse memories with secondhand information. For example, if a story is told enough times within a family, you might start to create mental images in much the same way you do when immersed in reading a book. Eventually, if asked, you will report that you remember an event or conversation of which you actually have no firsthand knowledge.

Your memory is largely filtered by your experiences, personality, and mindset. If you want something to have happened or to have played out in a certain way, it is possible to convince yourself it did. Also, two people can go through the exact same event together yet remember it very differently later on, because their respective minds are filtering the event through different mental paradigms. You might see an event as inherently positive, while somebody else involved could have a very different perspective on that memory. Additionally, if you have had similar experiences, it is possible to merge the memories of two separate occasions into one without realizing it. It’s also possible to use similar situations you’ve experienced to determine how you feel about a certain memory in a similar context. For example, if you generally had bad experiences at all your birthday parties growing up, your mind might not allow you to remember a positive birthday party experience you had because of your conditioned expectation that your birthday parties are not meant to go well, that something bad “always” happens. Personally, I engage in a lot of maladaptive daydreaming, which is a psychological term for creating a fake, yet very convincing reality in order to escape one’s traumas and disappointments. This kind of daydreaming can go on for hours at a time and seem very real. I have experienced confusion in the past when trying to remember if a certain conversation actually happened or if I had daydreamed it.

Your mind tends to fill in gaps in your memory over time. It can feel frustrating, unbalancing, even scary not to remember an event that happened to you in its entirety. It can feel urgent to remember. It can feel (and can actually be) dangerous to forget. It’s possible that after a while your mind will begin to fill in the missing pieces by itself as to give you an entire story, unbroken, from start to finish. I know there have been times I think to myself, “I used to know this. How could I have forgotten? I was even talking about this not so long ago. Did it go like this? That certainly makes sense in the story and I can see that happening, so I think it probably went like that.” Later on down the line, you won’t even remember that you had assumed that part had unfolded in a certain way. You will come to believe you had always retained the memory that way.

But why does any of this matter? How should the above be applied to living a peaceful, fulfilling life? So many people are holding themselves back because of what they deem to be bad memories of negative events that occurred to them in the past, sometimes in the far distant past. Events or conversations that took place and continue to haunt them until this day. Perhaps a recital they feel went terribly or an important talk with a friend they felt they didn’t handle well. However, as we have seen, many of our memories are simply our subconscious fears and insecurities pretending to be fact. Our memories may or may not have actually taken place. Speaking to other people who were there (if the memory is even real at all), it might be surprising to find out they have very different perspectives on what occurred. So do not allow the past to affect your future, because it might not really even be true reflections of your past. Do not elevate your perceptions and perspectives to the height of unarguable truth. Do not give something that might or might not even be real that kind of power over your happiness going forward. Realize that you are in control of your narrative and that you can choose to interpret life experiences as important or insignificant, fateful or impotent, ruinous or enlightening. All that ultimately exists and all that ultimately matters is the present.