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Gorillas in Our Midst: The Illusion of Memory

2011 May 25
by Mike

In the first post focused on The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, I looked at what they called “the illusion of attention.”

But what about our memories? Surely they aren’t an illusion, right?

As they discuss “the illusion of memory,” the authors point out that memory does not work like a video recording. Our memories are not objective recordings of WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. Very often—and they substantiate this with one study after another—what we think we remember is quite different from what actually took place.

Several years ago, some psychotherapists had a boom business with supposed “recovered memories.” The idea was that trauma—usually sexual trauma, and quite often the trauma of incest—could be called forth with the right kind of therapy. Many families were needlessly destroyed as vulnerable people, often with the suggestive guidance of friends who had “remembered,” made accusations against their family members. (Of course, this isn’t to say that such accusations were never true.)

But memories are unreliable: they can be confused, they can be borrowed, and they can be created.

Example: Three months after 9/11, President Bush said that just before he went into an elementary classroom in Florida to read to the children, he had seen a video of a plane hitting one of the towers. The problem is that when he entered that room, only one plane had crashed, and the video of that accident wasn’t available until later.

The President could not have been right. He couldn’t have seen a video that wasn’t yet available.

Unless—and this is the stuff conspiracy theory is made of—he had something to do with the crash and had seen a secret video never made available to the public.

But as the authors point out, the much simpler explanation is that President Bush’s memory was wrong. It’s what he thought he remembered. It’s how he made sense of that tumultuous time.

Often people “remember” seeing something that wasn’t there. But, again, it’s how they make sense of the event. They “remember” something they expected to be there.

This likely explains some of the plagiarism that is discovered. No question about it: there is such a thing as unintentional plagiarism. “When we retrieve a memory, we can falsely believe that we are fetching a record of something that happened to us rather than someone else.” We can tell a story so many times, that it becomes “our” memory. It’s so familiar that we insert ourselves into it. We read an illustration, a thought, an idea, and we absorb it. Eventually we forget the true source as we “remember” it as our own.

Sometimes memories are right. But sometimes they’re just too good to be true!

7 Responses leave one →
  1. AllieG permalink
    May 25, 2011

    I thought for the longest time that a story I have told was something that happened to me. Turns out it happened to my brother.

  2. erin permalink
    May 26, 2011

    I cannot help but wonder if some of the sweet memories people have about the church several decades ago are entirely accurate. Even as I think back twenty years, I have formed a picture that probably is not entirely true.

  3. May 26, 2011

    Sometimes I find myself recalling a situation & I think, “Did that really happen, or am I remembering one of my dreams?”

  4. May 26, 2011

    One wonders how this phenomenon affected the oral transmission of sacred stories that were later written down for all posterity. Certainly some of what we read is “meaning.” It is a good reminder that the narratives of the Bible are ‘theological’ rememberings, which are somewhat different than a newspaper’s write ups of events.

  5. May 26, 2011

    Ah, Jesse. You’re onto good questions!

  6. May 26, 2011

    I could’ve sworn I wrote a blog just like this one.

    Kidding.

    Josh (Graves)

  7. May 26, 2011

    Example 1a for the defense of Roger Clemens. Andy mis-remembered.

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