Nostalgia, False Memories, and the ‘Other Half’

Memory is a reconstruction.

For a while, the theory on memory was that all of our experiences, perceptions, sensory input, etc. got stored somewhere in our brain as they happened, then sent off to some other part of the brain shortly thereafter for long-term storage.  Like an infinite tape recorder or, perhaps more accurately, a movie of your life, a lifetime’s worth of memories are just sitting there, somewhere in the deep dark recesses of your hippocampus, available for remembering given the right circumstances.

And that’s just not how it really works.

The classic example used to disprove the “tape recorder” theory of memory involves, believe it or not, the implantation of false memories.  Now, false memories and therapy have something of a tempestuous past.  I like to think of it as a bad marriage that stuck together for the kids, only to doom them to a lifetime of going about thinking that normal relationships are supposed to be volatile, dysfunctional, soul-sucking anger magnets…

– wait, did somebody say childhood satanic ritual abuse? –

Yes, there’s been a bad history.  But implanting false memories, as it turns out, is incredibly easy.

Researchers have successfully gotten people to “remember” that they have been to Wendy’s playhouses, met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, and recite detailed episodes of getting very lost in a mall as a child, all of which never actually happened.  Wendy’s franchises have never had play areas, and Bugs Bunny has nothing to do with Disney.

Yes, it’s more accurate to think of memory as being constantly reconstructed.  The act of remembering often alters the memory, sometimes beyond recognition.  This is a major reason why eyewitness memories are relied upon less in court cases than they used to in the past.  It’s a great example of psychological knowledge influencing public policy.

I think things always seem way better when you remember them.  Much better than even the experience itself.  What I’m speaking of, of course, is nostalgia.  Yes, we all know that sensation of recalling a cherished memory, maybe from childhood, young adolescence, young adulthood… our eyes glaze over as we return in our minds to that time, the emotions, the sensations, the freedoms.  I’ve often wondered, why does the past always seem so much better than the present?  If only I could return to that age of innocence, that night a few years ago, that childhood memory, that time when things were so different, so great….

But we kid ourselves.  Yes, we had an awesome time on the playground, swirling around on those ridiculous merry-go-rounds or steel death-cages called monkey bars, back before everything turned plastic, safe, and sanitary.  But I’m convinced that we magnify this joy in our remembrances.  Childhood becomes idealized.  Everything is colourful, playful, innocent, joyous.  Crippling fear, shyness, embarrassments, and tantrums are conspicuous by their absence.  Maybe there’s just no sense in remembering the bad times.

But are we doing our past and present selves justice?  It seems like, if we’re not looking forward – to the next paycheque, the next purchase, the next holiday, the next weekend – we’re looking backward at how great things used to be.  We don’t really acknowledge the pain (if we’re lucky enough not to have experienced an inordinate amount of it), and in so doing, we are really just reinforcing the false belief that life is supposed to be easy, fun, fair.  After all, there was a time where we remember it as such.

Then, when the shit hits the fan, it just seems that much worse.  The past may be home to the best experiences in our memory, but the present typically houses the worst.

Really, life is full of terrible experiences, ‘negative’ emotions, lows.  What we really fail to get into our heads is that that’s how it’s supposed to be.  This myth that we can be happy all the time is ultimately just leading us on a rabbit chase.  And really, as much can be gained from the lows as the highs.  There is just as much life there, just as much experience.

So I propose we start constructing our memories a bit more accurately.  Like all those times we peed our pants, or got caught stealing candy, or couldn’t go out to play with friends.  How crushed and defeated, how hopeless we felt.  That’s the other half of being human, and while it’s not as fun, it’s just as important.