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The Science Behind Why Retelling a Memory Literally Rewrites Your Memory Of The Event
When does mis-remembering turn into a lie?
For months I had been verbally telling the story of how I cured my depression in 30 days. It was a great story and it captivated people. The only problem was, it was a lie.
I wasn’t intentionally telling a lie. I genuinely and completely thought I was telling the truth. But when I set out to write last weeks post How I Cured My Depression I started revisiting my nightly journals to verify the events from my memory. While I was doing this I discovered that my memory of the timeline of events was incredibly wrong.
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I’m not sure how it happened, but my memory of the timeline of events had gotten completely distorted. Here are some examples. I thought that my 3 friends all died within the matter of a couple months, it was actually closer to 5 months. I thought I had started seeing a therapist in July, but it was actually in April. I thought that my depression symptoms were resolved in a month, but it was actually closer to 6 or 7 months.
My memory of important details of the recent past was so filled with errors that I was stunned. I started feeling guilty that I had lied to people, even my closest friends, about the details of these events. To be clear, my post last week was as accurate as I could make it, it was the verbal story that I had told to others that had errors.
I was very fortunate that I have been journaling my thoughts and feelings daily for quite a while now, so I was able to check my fragile memory against a detailed journal of events that I wrote at the time. I was simply stunned at how many facts I had wrong.
This realisation got me thinking about a lot of things.
How do our brains recall memories? Do we remember facts, or do we remember stories?
How do the stories that we tell ourselves and others impact our memories over time?
If my memory was so wrong about important facts from a year or two ago, how accurate can my memories be about events that occurred even longer ago?
If my memory is this fragile, should I ever trust it? What other things have I gotten wrong in the past? How many arguments have I gotten into with others over a difference in the recollection of memories or events that happened in the past?
As a society, how can we trust eyewitness testimony or accounts of the past that carry with it the possibility of sending someone to death row or prison for the rest of their life?
How many memories of my childhood are actually true? Am I remember facts about my childhood or am I remembering stories that I have been told by others and stories that I have told?
It turns out that this is a complex and fascinating area of research, and the answers to these questions reveal a lot about how the human brain works.
The truth is, our memories are not as reliable as we would like to think they are. And mine is obviously pretty terrible! Research by Elizabeth J. Marsh, as detailed in her study, "Retelling Is Not the Same as Recalling: Implications for Memory," indicates that the stories we tell ourselves and others about our experiences can significantly shape our memories of those experiences. Her study demonstrates that when we recall events, we're not always just recalling the raw facts. Instead, our memories are influenced by our retellings of these events. In essence, each time we retell a story, we may be remembering it slightly differently, and those changes can accumulate over time, leading to a memory that may be quite different from what actually happened.
Another fascinating study by Pillemer and White, titled "Childhood Events Recalled," delves even deeper into this phenomenon. They introduce two types of memory: verbatim memory and gist memory. Verbatim memory is remembering the exact words used in a story, while gist memory is about remembering the general idea or theme. The real kicker is, each time we retell a story, our verbatim memory can get altered, and it's the gist memory that tends to stick around.
So, when I look back at my childhood, am I remembering the exact facts, or am I remembering the stories that have been told and retold? According to these studies, it's likely the latter. The stories we tell and retell, both to ourselves and others, play a major role in shaping our memories. This is a sobering thought when we consider the implications. How many of our memories are "true" in the factual sense, and how many are the stories we've created and recreated over time?
One of the most formative stories from my past that I have retold hundreds of times is when I was playing hockey in high school and got my throat cut by a hockey skate. The experience changed my life. The general story that I tell about the event was that I was playing center, I fell on a hockey skate, I got up and cleared the puck, I was in the triage room when blood squirted across the hospital room, the doctors used over 200 stitches to sew me up, and during the operation the surgeon said “Son, you were 1/4 inch away from dying”.
How many of those facts are true? Reflecting on it now, it seems impossible that they needed to use 200 stitches to sew up a 4-6 inch cut. Looking back on it now, it seems unreasonable that the surgeon would take the time out of the operation to talk directly to a 17 year old kid he was operating on and make such a perfect quotable line. Has my retelling of this story over the past 25 years made the story more and more dramatic? How many of these facts are actually true? Have I been lying to myself and my friends? Fortunately, there is a video of some of it, so I know some of my details are correct. But what have I been lying about?
To bring it back to my own experiences with writing about my depression, it's clear that my memory of the timeline was heavily influenced by the narrative I had formed in my head and had retold to others. "Curing my depression in 30 days" is a powerful story, but it wasn't the reality. It took journaling and revisiting those entries to reveal the truth.
This raises serious questions about the reliance on memory in areas like eyewitness testimony. If our memories can be so easily influenced and altered, how can they be considered reliable in a court of law? It's a question that society needs to grapple with, especially when it comes to matters as serious as criminal justice.
Stories are a powerful means for transmitting important information and values between individuals and communities. Emotionally compelling stories engage our brains and are better remembered compared to mere facts. The effectiveness of a story hinges on two factors: capturing and holding our attention, and "transporting" us into the world of its characters.
From a scientific perspective, attention is akin to a spotlight, illuminating a narrow area. If that area appears less interesting, our attention tends to wander. Effective stories maintain our focus by steadily increasing tension and by relating the story to your specific audience. Think about it, when you recall a story to your grandma you don’t usually tell it exactly the same as when you recall it for your close friends. You try to fit the same story to relate to the audience you are addressing.
The problem that I realize now is that everytime I retell a story - I am shaping my memory of that story. My memory of that event is literally being altered everytime I retell it. I’m not just “remembering” the facts. I’m literally reshaping the facts based on the narrative that I’m telling.
The power of storytelling carries a lot of pitfalls. Recounting stories can distort our memories, leading to unintentional omissions, additions, or rearrangements of events. Various factors, including personal biases, the audience, and the context in which stories are retold, contribute to incomplete or distorted retellings that affect subsequent memory.
This also leads me to question things about famous examples of people getting things wrong. Were they actually lying? Or were they mis-remembering? Remember the examples of Brian Williams and James Frey?
Brian Williams, a former NBC Nightly News anchor, was suspended for six months in 2015 after it was revealed that he had embellished a story about being on a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War in 2003. It was later confirmed that Williams was indeed in a helicopter during the incident, but it was not the one that was hit. He was quoted in his apology as saying: "I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another." he added "I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two."
James Frey, an author endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, caused controversy with his book "A Million Little Pieces," which he initially presented as a memoir. It was later revealed that many of the events described in the book were either exaggerated or fabricated. This caused a significant backlash, leading to a public apology by Frey on Oprah's show.
Were these two people lying intentionally? Or did they just misremember the facts? I’m not sure. But these examples serve as a stark reminder that while storytelling has the power to inspire, educate, and connect us, it's also a tool that can unintentionally distort our own memories, leading to distortions and misconceptions. It's a reminder of the responsibility that comes with the power of storytelling and that we all must be very careful with our reliance on our memories for factual information especially about events that we have recounted in stories because each retelling of the story can unintentionally alter the facts in the story.
So, what's the takeaway from all of this? For me, it's the importance humility in understanding my own mind, its limitations, and the fallibility of my own memories. It's about recognising that my memories are not perfect and they will certainly get less perfect over time. It's about understanding that our brains are wired to remember stories, not just facts, and those stories can change over time. And most importantly, I shouldn’t be so certain about things. Even my own mind.
Learning all this got me extremely worried about writing this newsletter. I am certain that I will make mistakes in this newsletter. I know that I will get some details wrong and that I will unwittingly lie to you without knowing I’m doing so. This is my preemptive apology. Please know that I will always do my best to be truthful and honest, but based on what I just experienced writing “How I Cured My Depression”, I am truly humbled by how terrible my memory is. As Mark Twain (may have) famously said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Year Of The Opposite - Travis Stoliker's Substack is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.