Paperwork: Ahhh, the good old days. I remember them (sort of) well

Lonny Cain

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus is an expert on memory, and she scares me.

There’s a lot of research that backs up what she says about memory, but it all comes down to a simple warning. Be careful what you believe.

Don’t trust everything you remember about your past. It’s possible that what you do remember is more fiction than fact. That’s her expert advice.

OK, back up. She’s not calling anyone a liar. Because we do trust our early memories and believe them to be true.

We embrace special moments in time that made us feel good and relive those that made us feel bad. It’s just that over time the details can slowly evolve into the story we prefer to tell ourselves.

I already know my memory is stored in a foggy room. I often can’t remember the movie I watched the night before. But I do see flashes of my life that seem clear and very real. Why would I doubt such recollections?

I will let Loftus answer that. She shared a lot of insights in NPR’s “Hidden Brain” program with Shankar Vedantam.

“The way I’ve often put it, memory doesn’t work like a recording device,” she said. “You don’t just record the event and play it back later. The process is much more complex. ...

“That when we’re remembering things, we’re frequently taking bits and pieces of experience, sometimes things that happen at different times and places, bringing it together to construct what feels to us like a memory. And that’s why we talk about the constructive or reconstructive nature of memory.”

Loftus and others have done a lot of experimenting with memory and have shown how easy it is to plant false memories in others.

“So we now have a whole collection of studies that show that you can plant pretty unusual and pretty upsetting if they’d actually happened, but completely made up experiences into the minds of ordinary healthy people,” she said.

Loftus often testifies in court cases where people claim to have recovered traumatic memories from the distant past. Her primary goal is not to call people liars or claim memories are total fiction. She simply notes memories might not be totally reliable and factual backup would be helpful.

Loftus understands how upsetting it is when someone questions a memory. But research clearly shows how easily memories can be manipulated.

“We need to then figure out ways to live with it, or combat it, or fix it, or minimize the harms of it. Because a lot of harm has come from mistaken memory,” she said.

“And this is maybe a truth that we should figure out how to respond to if it’s going to be a problem, or accept and deal with and live with, just like we might have blurry bad vision, and we fix it with glasses or contact lenses.”

Her biggest concerns are memories that suddenly erupt and bring pain, ripping families and friendships apart. But not all memories are barbed and brutal.

It already bothers me that I cannot recall details of events I should remember. Now must I question memories of growing up that I have saved as treasures?

Loftus says we unknowingly tweak our memories to make ourselves feel better or perhaps to enhance or brighten a real memory. And it feels real.

Well, I’m thinking that’s OK. It’s part of being human, and I kind of like that part.

Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. His Paperwork email is Or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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