I think of memories as a continuous complex chemical cycle in which neurons relay information from an event to one another. Over time, the cycle fades, sometimes disappearing completely. When we recall an event, new neural connections are made, and the cycle is refreshed, but details may be missing or have even changed – what we have created is a memory of a memory. Eventually many of our memories have actually become memories of memories of memories of memories… ad centum. We whisper the memory into our own ear thousands of times, and the memory morphs over time.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that we are fallible when it comes to memory (and many other things). My wife doesn’t believe that my 3rd grade teacher (we’ll call her Ms. Maybe) smoked in class. And my wife could be right to doubt me. Maybe I actually saw Ms. Maybe smoking somewhere else and I conflated it with an image of her in the classroom. Maybe I never saw Ms. Maybe smoking at all. I sat next to Ms. Maybe on a plane many years later and she, surprise, didn’t remember me. I didn’t let on that she had been my teacher – maybe I should have and I could’ve asked her if she remembered smoking in class.
Still, we shouldn’t assume that all of our memories are false – our minds are amazing machines, and it makes sense that having fairly accurate recall would be evolutionarily selected for. But it’s not a bad idea to dispense with some of the hubris we have regarding our, uh, whatchamacallits.
Incidentally, I’m working on an autobiography of sorts. It’s an interesting experiment in recall, as I’ll sometimes feel like I’ve exhausted all my memories about a certain event, but then something will pop up from a completely different trigger that will add to the memory. This will be forthcoming by the end of 2015 (or maybe 2016 (or maybe never)).