My husband recalls the party where we met years ago as if it were yesterday. “I asked you to dance, and we danced in that big room off the living room.”
I remember it as if it were yesterday, too. Except correctly. We danced in the living room. There was no other room in my friend’s apartment.
He smiles and shakes his head. I give a tight smile myself and indulge him.
Even though I’m right.
Ah, says Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, what we are experiencing is a phenomenon she has just scientifically documented for the first time. She found that the brain does two things with memories: 1) It alters them. 2) It believes it hasn’t.
Every time we go back to a memory, Bridge says, we are actually creating a new memory, bringing in some new associations and unconsciously leaving out some old details. It’s as if we’re opening a door and some tiny particles fly out while some new ones fly in unnoticed.
So, for example, if you witness a car accident from far away and then rush to the scene to help some of the people, it’s quite possible that the next time you remember this event, you remember being close to the accident when it happened. “Basically, we remember things incorrectly,” Bridge says. “We forget details; we mix things up.”
To study this, she had her test subjects recall the location of objects on a grid three times over the course of three days. Day one they were shown the objects in place. Day two they were shown some of the objects in a group and asked to move them to their original locations. Day three they did the same.
People never recalled all the locations perfectly. But more interestingly, folks who put the objects in the wrong places on day two put them closer to that spot on day three than to the original, correct spot. So their second memory — already wrong — influenced their third.
In this way, the memory works like the telephone game. Remember that party favorite (accurately or not)? You’d start with a phrase and whisper it to the kid next to you, who’d whisper it to the next, and by the time it got back to you, “I love Oreo cookies!” had become “Cathy has cooties.” (Which she did. But that’s for another time.)
The implications of Bridge’s study are pretty stunning when it comes to criminal justice. We already have learned to be suspicious of eyewitness reports — these have been shown to be unreliable — but we now have to be suspicious of memories themselves. That includes memories that the witnesses, suspects and even the victims believe to be completely true.
“When someone tells me they are sure that they remember exactly the way something happened, I just laugh,” Bridge says. Our brains simply are not the video cameras we think they are.
Bridge did observe that the closer to an event that a memory is recorded the likelier it is to be accurate. So if you really want to remember something, write it down immediately. Your accuracy starts to fade even a day later.
As for my husband and me, I will grant you that — theoretically — he might be right.
But non-theoretically? He’s wrong, wrong, wrong.