How reliable are the memories you use to tell anecdotes?

Do you have a set of stories in your head? I don’t mean the plots of various novels that you have read or the latest Netflix movie you watched, but something more personal, more about your identity and how you perceive yourself?

This concept came up in discussion with a friend the other day who claimed that we probably have about 40 stories in our head that we regularly pull out to impress others. They are often attention-grabbing memories and often start with the classic ‘Did I tell you about …?’  They are the funny stories where we are the victim of some absurd situation that elicits guffaws of laughter and attention; there are the stories where we are the knight in shining armour and rescue someone; or we are the clever person who manages to achieve a level of success in work or we remember our childhood as perhaps more bleak than it was, to elicit sympathy and attention. There is probably always the desire to present a favourable narrative to disguise some of our inadequacies.

But how reliable are these sometimes embellished memories? Physicists will tell us that we only experience a very narrow view of the world around us, a version of the world based on our senses and our memory. For one thing, we do not see all the colour spectrum, the wavelengths of light that are in the universe. Some insects and other animals see a slightly wider version of the world, their genetics allowing them to see more of the ultraviolet light regions. Even the stars we see in the sky do not necessarily exist anymore. Their light was emitted millions of years ago in some instances and the star no longer exists. So, what we see is not real, but a distorted view of reality.

But is it just light that is distorted by our limited ability to see the world? Most of us would acknowledge, at least on some level, we do not really comprehend the world as it is, nor do we see ourselves and others accurately. Our memories are evidently notoriously unreliable. Ask any first year psychology student who undertakes tests on memory with recruited subjects. We are poor at recalling what we have seen or heard, probably allowing our cognitive biases to dominate our memory. We make bad witnesses to crimes, often failing to remember many details at all. As we age our memories of day to day things can fade, while our long-term memory hangs on, neural pathways cemented in the past, easily retrieved, yet today’s breakfast is forgotten.

We also suffer from confirmation bias, seeing things we want to see, making connections between random things because we want to believe there is a connection, regardless of whether there is proof or not. How many deny the reality of astrology yet read their horoscopes when given a chance, sitting in a waiting room, or declare they are a Gemini and therefore two faced?

So, what does this say about the stories we tell others and ourselves? Now, some of these stories may well be true, or at least began their life with elements of truth. Are they narrative lies or merely harmless versions of reality, with us having told the tale so often that the latest version becomes a truth embedded in our psyche?

As we tell our own narrative, it is best to remember that we are just human, flawed, complex and unique. And so are others that we meet and whose stories we listen to.

How reliable are your memories? What’s your favourite story? Do you embellish it? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Why it’s the small things that make me feel grateful

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