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The Unreliability of Memory

From Rina Goodman’s Transforming Conflict Blog

There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.


[This is the first part of a series on this topic.]

When I was very young, my grandmother enjoyed telling me about a very special time when she was traveling by train from New York City to spend the weekend with my parents, sister, and me on Long Island. In this story (which she claimed to be true), the train had made one of its usual stops before reaching our town when a cute, fluffy kitten stepped off the platform and onto the train. In this story, my grandmother watched this little kitten as it walked right up to her and, without a word (ok, I added that part), leapt onto her lap, curled up, and fell fast asleep. “Why didn’t you bring it home to me?” I would ask each time she repeated this story, as if, by changing the story, she could change the outcome in real life. “Because,” she’d remind me, “when we arrived at the next stop and the doors opened, the kitty woke up, jumped off my lap, and walked right out the door before I could stop it!”

The implausability of the story my grandmother told never struck me when I was young. As an adult, talking about this with my mother, I suddenly understand that my grandmother’s “memory” probably was constructed, based, perhaps, on something that really did happen and colored, somewhat, too, by some wishful thinking and her desire to please a wistful grandchild.

Memories are the stuff of literature and art, enriching our collective imagination and culture. But as we know, they also can be inaccurate and even false. In The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Daniel L. Schacter sums up his explanation for why memories are not carbon copies of what we perceive with our senses:

We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.

It’s important to understand that, with rare exceptions, no one’s memory is absolutely precise. Absent hard evidence such as recordings or writing, there is a reasonable chance that your recollection is, well, just as faulty as the other person’s.

So what’s the problem? The problem occurs when we rely on memory for making judgments and decisions that are life-altering while discounting evidence that a contrary view may be equally reasonable.


Rina M. Goodman

Rina Goodman, owner of Transforming Conflict, LLC, is an attorney and certified mediator with over 200 hours in advanced mediation training, including divorce, elder care, and workplace mediation. She also has had considerable continuing legal education in divorce, relationship dissolution, estate planning, and elder care, and continues her education in… MORE >

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