Friday, 12 March 2010

Flimsy memories

Memories are so slippery. We think we remember an event so clearly, so accurately, yet someone else who was there will tell us we got it all wrong and it wasn't like that at all.

The police know all too well how fallible our memory is. If you talk to ten witnesses of a car accident, they'll all say something different. They can't agree on the car's speed, what happened, the weather, even the driver's gender.

My memory of an event often clashes with Jenny's, or one of us doesn't recall it at all. Do you remember that blonde in the miniskirt who pinched our taxi, I ask? She was dark-haired and wearing trousers, says Jenny. And she didn't pinch our taxi, she shared it. Okay, so something's got scrambled somewhere.

Sometimes I wonder just how reliable any of my memories are. How much of my life is a complete myth based on decades of gradually mangled recollections and how much is the truth? Did that wild night of sex with Caroline at the age of 19 actually happen or did she push me out of the door and say she never wanted to see me again?

People can nurse grievances for years over the way someone treated them, when their memory may be getting it all wrong. One reason I never breed grievances is that I can't be sure those abusive remarks or that hostile brush-off really happened. I may have dreamt the whole thing.

And at my age I think some memories have started to merge with things I've read or seen on TV. I remember so vividly that nightmare drive through torrential rain to visit an ailing girlfriend. Or is that just a classic episode from an early Ian McEwan novel?

I've learnt to treat my memories with caution, and bear in mind they may be no more reliable than a drunkard's hard luck story.

24 comments:

Grannymar said...

I remember what happened last week, but what was I doing five minutes ago?????

Megan said...

Oh yes indeed. I agree on all points!

One of my old high school pals is a freak. She remembers EVERYTHING. Or at least, she makes it sound like she does. I can't tell a story without her amending it in some way.

You should hear my parents when they get going. "That never happened" is a regular refrain at any family function!

Nick said...

Grannymar - That too! The number of times I go upstairs and then can't remember what I'm upstairs for....

Megan - Those people with photographic memories (my father had one) are truly infuriating. And I suspect they really do remember it all accurately. Most embarrassing when my father was recalling some horrible misdeed of mine 15 years previously.

Wisewebwoman said...

What fascinates me Nick is how my 5siblings and I remember incidents growing up in totally different ways. The power of different perceptions on the same event.
XO
WWW

e said...

There are a combination of factors at work here. One is memory, the other is perception and still another is whether we choose to attend to details, what details those are and the importance we attach to them...

My mum always said I have a memory like an elephant, so I guess I'm one of the infuriating lot you've remarked on here...

meno said...

i get in a lot of trouble for misremembering something my spouse said that he thought was really important.

Nick said...

www - Indeed, different perceptions lead to very different memories. And how much of that perception is interpretation rather than fact - like people's expressions?

e - True, degree of attentiveness and interest are also relevant. Yes, a photographic memory can be infuriating, but it can also be a godsend if you need to remember something vital in a crisis!

Meno - Ah yes, I've been through that many times! And vice versa of course.

Rummuser said...

Nick, I posted a comment a while ago to the effect that memories are conditioned by convenience and the problem is in handling resentments. That has not been published. Have you put in moderation?

Rummuser said...

Strange, this time, the comment has beeen published! Some quirk I suppose.

Wisewebwoman said...

"Ah," I'll be saying, "I knew Nick back when, before he was shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards 2010."

YOU GO NICK!!

XO
WWW

Leah said...

This one really hit home! What Meno said--that's me all over. And yes, as you say, my memory is a wacky melange of fact, fiction, fantasy, and scenes from movies misremembered as my own life...

Nick said...

Ramana - Sorry about the lost comment. Blogger is still misbehaving though comments usually pop up eventually. By convenience do you mean whether it's convenient to pay proper attention to something or whether it's convenient to remember it afterwards?

www - I think you knew me when I was shortlisted for the 2008 awards. I did't win though!

Leah - Glad to know I'm not the only one with this weird jumble of quasi-memories....

kylie said...

hi nick

Rummuser said...

I meant that our memory is useful to us when it is convenient to do so and not otherwise. In the process of using such content, one can of course either deny totally something that had happened, add to it or reduce it in some way to suit a particular purpose. Let me give an example. When I draw the attention of my father to some unpleasant things that happened in my childhood, he flatly denies them and says he does not remember them whereas I have distinct recollection of those incidents.

Nick said...

Ramana - Yes, my mum does that sometimes, when I recall some parenting blunder or something disappointing about my childhood. She denies it ever occurred. She just won't admit she did anything wrong.

Baino said...

Ah the old 'selective' memory. I am hopeless. Great long term memory, crap short term memory. I used to think it was old age creeping in then I watch my daughter regularly walk back into the house after departing because she's forgotten something and I feel a little vindicated. I remember arguing with my brother black and blue that I hadn't seen a particular rock band back in the 90's eventually it clicked. I'd sat through a U2 concert and completely forgotten!

Liz said...

I'd hadn't seen the cousin I'd grown up with for years and when we met she talked about a past that was alien to me. 'You've got it wrong,' I wanted to say, but maybe both of us were seeing it from our own perspectives.

You're right: memories are unreliable.

Nick said...

Baino - Snap! I'm always walking out of the front door and then remembering something I should have come out with. And the same with forgotten concerts, books, movies, you name it!

Liz - Me too. The number of times I've disagreed with someone about what really happened on such and such an occasion....

Megan said...

Just last night my folks got in a tiff about, of all things, how they MET. I wasn't there but my sister kept having to leave the room to text me about it.

Yikes!

Nick said...

Megan - I can believe it! But I think Jenny and I could agree about that. We met in a London bookshop where I was already working and she was a dishy new employee!

Brighid said...

There are whole periods of my life that have been blanks, it has always been so for me. I don't understand it as it's not as if they were bad times. Geez could it be a form of youthful dementia?

Nick said...

Brighid - I'm sure all those memories are stored away somewhere, it's just that they're impossible to retrieve. It's like a locked filing cabinet.

Kate said...

Its funny isn't it ..... everybody thinks they remember certain things - yet they've all seen it from a different angle. My brother has a rose tinted memory and who am I to disillusion him? I just smile and nod!!

I hope I get like that one day!

Nick said...

Kate - I know, we're all convinced our version is the correct one. How could someone else remember it so differently?