Why memories keep changing

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Old pictures

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

You think your memories don’t change?

What if memories were like time travel in the science fiction stories? Every time you visit them there is a risk that you will do or say something that could change that memory and as a result, your personal history would change?

Researchers in memory quote Endel Tulving as saying that is exactly what is happening to many of us much of the time. Those memories we think were exactly so, they have changed for us every time we revisit them. Let me explain how this works.

We have some things stored in our memories as pictures. That place you worked at, the people who worked with you, what your office looked like. Years later you might remember that setting. Or do you?

Over time the office changes. You move furniture around, the company gets a new copier and then a newer computer system, your brain stores those new pictures. It updates the scene “what the office looks like.”

During this time your coworker may change her look. She gets a new hairstyle and wears different clothes and then gains or loses weight. Your brain tries to keep up but it can’t remember all those outfits your coworker wore so it stores a few “typical” outfits for her.

Your brain also stores some stories. The time someone important visited, the conversation you had about that new book you had read and so on.

One day years afterward you go to tell another mutual friend about this incident you and your coworker had with that one, particularly difficult client. Your brain pulls up the story and you are ready to go.

One problem here, the brain may not have an accurate description of where things were that day and what she was wearing. So it pulls up one of the other pictures it has stored and fills in the missing details. Did the customer pull on that necklace she was wearing? What if she didn’t get that necklace until a few years later? What was it that customer grabbed? You can’t be sure.

Your brain will try to fill in enough details to make this story work using pictures from other times. So we can’t be sure what your coworker was wearing or even where the copier was situated when this incident happened. But we do now have the story of the incident freshly relieved in our mind.

Each time we revisit this story our mind may update the memory adding new pictures of your coworker and the office. What if she changes her hair color? Your memory may begin to include her as a blond in the old pictures because that is the way she looks now. After a few visits back to these old memories we can’t be sure when she changed her hair color. So now when asked to describe the incident and we are told that the person who was assaulted was the blond, was that our coworker or was this someone else who was there that day?

See how memories might change with the retelling of the story and the retrieval of the memories?

Now add drugs, alcohol or high levels of certain stress hormones and the way in which the memories were stored and retrieved will be affected. Feelings we have now will affect the memories and now we begin to think that person must have looked really scary because remembering the incident scares us.

Each time we recall the memory some part is at risk of changing.

Eventually, if we revisit this memory enough times it gets stored completely like a movie and from then on it is less likely to change by repeated viewing.

Adding to this problem is the brain’s ability to confuse things we imagine vividly with things we actually saw. Writers and hopefully their readers can describe in vivid detail characters from the novels they have written or read. These images are so clear it is as if they have really met that person. Only, as many a writer will find, the way the reader experienced that character and the way the author saw them are very different.

While recalling that memory, if you tell it to someone else and they ask you questions, your brain will begin to look for answers to those questions and add that information to the memory clip. This is a problem for people in therapy when the brain begins to mix up memories of different times and places.

If the therapist asked you if you were ever abused you might say no and fully believe this. But if a psychologist were to test you and then tell you that your personality scores suggest that you were molested and that most people who had this experience forget that experience you may now question your memory.

Our brains will revise memories if we see alternative explanations for why we are the way we are or how something may have happened. These memories are at extra risk of revision if the person offering the explanation is an important respected person and if they offer you an explanation of why you might have forgotten the experience or that detail.

This whole idea that memories are changeable and that revisiting them may change them may scare some people. Realize that our minds are constantly trying to make sense of things whether they are happening today or happened years in the past.

Don’t start doubting all your old childhood memories just be aware that some of the details may not be the way you remember them and that there may have been other explanations for what you thought happened and how you felt.

Make your memory your employee not your boss.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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