Humans have an amazing ability to retain information, it is gathered and remembered through all five senses in great detail in order for us to learn from it and use it in the future.
But how many times have you had a discussion with your parents about something that happened in your childhood, only to notice that you each have a completely different recollection of what happened, sometimes even with one of you refusing to admit it ever happened. And what about the times your parents tell a story of your childhood and you have no memory of it whatsoever?
It is because of how we store events.
There was an experiment done on the outskirts of Roswell (where the very well-known ‘UFO incident’ happened in 1947) to demonstrate how bad our recollection skills really are. The TV programme took a selection of criminal investigators, lawyers and police officers on a hike lasting several miles without telling them about the experiment – they were told it was a team-building exercise. Each participant was picked because, due to their lines of work, they could be said to have a better than average situational memory. They were all given a headset that that recorded everything they looked at. While hiking they came across a crime scene just off the path. By this time they had naturally split into smaller groups. They all took considerable notice, but were asked to move on by an officer at the scene.
A few days later they were taken into rooms and asked for details about what they had witnessed. It varied greatly: some recalled five or six officers, others said there were only two. They got a large proportion of the details wrong. They were then shown their own video footage from the glasses, and you can imagine their surprise when they realised how fallible their own recall was.
So, Why Are Our Childhood Memories So Different to Our Parents’?
This is the same for everybody. Everything we witness is stored in our memory in a sort of compressed way. It would be impossible to store everything completely, so our mind sorts all the information it receives into prioritised categories, such as whether it is of high emotional value or low. By high emotional value, I mean something that made you feel either really good or terrible; for learning purposes they are equally as important. Some psychiatrists would even argue that anything that hurts us has higher value than things that make us feel good. I don’t know, I’m not a psychiatrist, but it does make sense. Something we felt a great emotional response from will be stored with great detail, that is why you can remember a conversation that hurt you significantly, right down to each word, where you were, and who you were with. But the person that said it probably cannot remember it, as it would have held much less emotional value to them.
On the other hand, something with no emotional value attached to it is stored in a very passive way. The mind links this information to other similar information and throws it together to save storage space, discarding duplicate information. So when you come to recall that, you often get a mix of several events together with and your brain fills in the gaps. You are unaware of this process happening, so you believe your memory is completely correct.
A simple experiment to see how good your mind is at making stuff up that you can do at home is to film yourself in a mirror moving your eyes left to right. When you are watching in the mirror you will not see your eyes moving, but your vision does not go blank either. When you watch the video back you will see your eyes move. While your eyes are moving from one place to another and re-focusing, everything you see is in fact your brain filling in what you previously saw. Without this function we would get seasick all the time! So, as you can see, a significant portion of what we see with our eyes is made up. Luckily for us it is only small things, but it illustrates the power of the mind.
When we realise most of our memories are only our interpretation of what happened, we can let go of the need to be right.
The next time you disagree about a past event, consider the possibility that you both have things wrong!