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Have you ever found yourself “filling in” details of a story you were telling, even if the details weren’t exactly true? That is because you cannot trust your memory for many reasons. Your memory is not a camcorder and only picks up the gist of what people are telling you while filling in the gaps on it’s own, “repressed” memories are easily planted in one’s brain that are false, and not all people are taking the correct measures to effectively memorize materials for everyday life.

First and foremost, the reason you can’t trust your memory is because your memory is not a camcorder! When we are in the midst of a conversation with anyone, our brain only picks up bits and pieces of the conversation. “We remember the gist of what we were thinking when a person was talking, not exactly what was stated” (McDermott). This being said, some important details can easily be left out when attempting to restate what a person said, which is a common result of the ugly: rumors. “The formation of a false memory happens in the same way as the formation of a true memory. The same structures are being used” (Stark). This is why it is so easy to believe something, even if it is completely made up.

This leads into the next point, that “repressed memories” may not always be true. This isn’t the most popular statement with the height of the “Me Too” movement among society, but it is true. “In 1992, a Missouri church counselor helped Beth R. “remember” her father hurting her multiple times during her childhood. Medical evidence later proved the 22 year old woman’s memories were false. A lawsuit against the therapist was settled for $1 million” (True or False). A lot of times, therapists may assume that problems patients have are a result of childhood trauma that never even happened, so they end up planting false memories in patients brains. As a result of that, the patients believe the false memory in the sense of feeling like they have justification to their other problems. There is one specific experiment done that bounces off of false memories. “One experiment included Bugs Bunny in fake ads for Disney resorts. After showing the ads, researchers asked which characters people had personally met at Disneyland. About 1 out of every 6 people falsely remembered meeting Bug’s Bunny” (True or False).

The next piece of evidence there is that memory is not credible, is a survey conducted by me with the target as classmates. The first question was “Do you forget things, then remember them some time later frequently?” 72% of the population, well over half, answered yes. This proves that these memories have plenty of time to sit and become overloaded with information that could possibly alter them until they are conveniently remembered once again. The next question was “When you are telling someone a story, something that personally happened to you or that you witnessed, do you find yourself ‘filling in the blanks’ because you can’t truthfully remember what happened?” 62%, once again over half, of people admitted that they do in fact fill in the blanks, because they only took in the gist of what was happening. Memories most often are to be looked at like jotting down notes, not a video that can be played back on spot. In a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologists William Hurst and Elizabeth Phelps review 50 years of research on so-called “flashbulb memories”. These are recollections of emotionally charged events. The term alludes to the experience that these events are seared into memory as if they were flash photos.

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Researchers typically conduct studies on flashbulb memories as follows: immediately after a major national or international event, psychologists interview hundreds of ordinary people about their experience. Key questions include:

  • When did you hear about the event?
  • Where were you?
  • What were you doing?
  • How did you find out?

Months or even years later, the researchers contact the respondents again and ask them the same questions. They also ask them to rate the vividness of the memory and how confident they are of its accuracy. We know that as time passes our memory for ordinary personal events declines in accuracy. What’s more, we also feel that our recollections of those events are fading. That is, we doubt the accuracy of those memories.

But flashbulb memories are different. We remember them as if they’d happened yesterday, even though they took place many years ago. They don’t fade with time but remain vivid and clear in our mind. Further, our confidence about their accuracy stays high, no matter how many years have passed. Hurst and Phelps point out that researchers can’t really assess the accuracy of memories, even on the first reporting, because they didn’t observe the moment that the memory was formed. Also, several days had already elapsed by the time of the first interview, and we know from other research that that’s plenty of time for a memory to morph. However, what researchers can and do look for is consistency between the first and second telling of the memory.

Half a century of research on flashbulb memories shows us that they don’t remain consistent from one retelling to the next. Just like any other memory, these seemingly vivid recollections shift their shape over time. We forget or misremember details and incorporate information we’ve only learned afterward into our memory of the original event. All of this occurs despite the fact that our confidence in the accuracy of the memory remains high. Finally, we all have positive flashbulb memories for key personal events in our lives — our wedding day, the birth of our first child. These are vivid memories we’ll cherish for a lifetime — even if we don’t remember them exactly as they occurred.

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