NWPR Books
8:32 am
Sun March 17, 2013

Reminder: Our Memories Are Less Reliable Than We Think

What's your first memory? You're a baby or a toddler. Maybe it's a specific experience, maybe an impression. Maybe someone's face, or just a kind of feeling or sense. Or maybe it's a compilation of stories over years. And maybe it's less true than you think it is.

In his new book, Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough digs deep into the recesses of memory to figure out what shapes it, how it works and why some things stick with us forever. Fernyhough talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his own first memory and his exploration of the science of remembering.


Interview Highlights

On our earliest memories being out-of-body experiences

"[In my first memory] I'm on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived at the time. And I've got this toy forklift truck, and I'm pushing this thing across the carpet. There's something really strange about this memory — it's vivid, I can imagine the quality of the light, something of the atmosphere in the room. But I'm looking at myself in the third person. I'm not looking out at the room through my own eyes. I'm looking at myself as a kid in this memory. And that is one of the most puzzling things about particularly early memories. Sometimes we see ourselves in our memories as people in the third person — we don't look out through our own eyes. And this is one of the clues that psychologists get about how memory works as a reconstruction. If I was really recording, and reliving an experience that I kind of recorded in my mind, I should be looking out at that room through my own eyes — but I'm not. Something has flipped around. The perspective has changed."

On memories as altered reconstructions of the past

"There's something weird going on with memory. The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that's not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. ... Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn't mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they're shaped by who we are now. They're shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are."

On the faulty memories of couples

"I think one of the most interesting things about memory in relation to couples getting together is that there's this sense, this kind of pressure to agree on a shared representation of the past. You know, husbands and wives tend not to disagree about the past wholesale. They tend to come to a shared representation of what happened in the past. When people split up or couples get separated or divorced or whatever, those tensions about memory can come back to the surface, and you find out that people start to disagree and actually start to say, 'It never happened that way; it actually happened this way.' "

On quantity vs. quality

"Thinking about this book made me realize that remembering more stuff isn't necessarily better. Being able to recall every card in a pack of playing cards or recall pi to the thousandth decimal place — why? Why would you want to do that? It's no use to me. For some people it might be important, but it's no use at all for me. What I would like to do is remember the stuff that I remember better, in more detail, more vividly."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So, what's your first memory? You're a baby or a toddler. Maybe it's a specific experience, maybe an impression. Maybe someone's face or just a kind of feeling or sense, or maybe it's a compilation of stories over years. And maybe it's less true than you think it is.

In his new book, "Pieces of Light," Charles Fernyhough digs deep into the recesses of memory to figure out what shapes it, how it works and why some things stick with us forever. He's an associate professor of psychology at Durham University in the U.K. Charles Fernyhough joins us from the BBC studios in London.

Welcome to the program.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Hi, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So I'd like to start, Charles, by asking you about your first memory. I imagine you've thought about this. What is the first thing you remember?

FERNYHOUGH: Well, I'm on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived at the time. And I've got this toy forklift truck and I'm pushing this thing across the carpet. And there's something really strange about this memory; it's vivid, I can imagine the quality of the light, something of the atmosphere in the room. But I'm looking at myself in the third person. OK? I'm not looking out at the room through my own eyes.

MARTIN: Yeah.

FERNYHOUGH: I'm looking at myself as a kid in this memory. And that is one of the most puzzling things about particularly early memories. Sometimes we see ourselves in our memories as people in the third person - we don't look out through our own eyes. And this is one of the clues that psychologists get about how memory works as a reconstruction.

If I was really recording and reliving an experience that I kind of recorded in my mind, I should be looking out at that room through my own eyes. But I'm not - something has flipped around. The perspective has changed.

MARTIN: So it was really interesting when I read that in the book because it's the same for me. My first memory, I'm in the house where I was growing up and really little. Something kind of embarrassing has happened to me and I remember that sense of kind of shame. But I am looking down on myself as a little kid, as a toddler. I'm not looking out for my toddler eyes. And I hadn't thought about that as a way I may have reconstructed.

What does that mean? Does that mean that's not a real memory of mine?

FERNYHOUGH: Not necessarily. It means that something has happened, something is being reshaped. Actually Sigmund Freud noted this when he wrote about these kinds of memories. It doesn't mean that the memory is false. But it does mean that your perspective on it has been flipped. And so, really, all you can say is that it is a sign that memory is a reconstruction of past events.

We don't record events like a video camera recording, you know, what's going on. We gather together lots of different kinds of information. We store it sometimes for decades and then we put it all back together. In the moment, we reconstruct those events from the perspective of now.

MARTIN: Is there any downside to that, to having a vivid imagination and constructing really detailed memories that may or may not be true, but they become part of the story we tell ourselves about the life that we've lived?

FERNYHOUGH: I think this is my point in the book. There's something weird going on with memory. The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example - that it records and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that's not surprising because we see memories as foundational for who we are.

You know, we commonly feel that we are our memories. You know, our memories define us. So something needs to change. What I'm trying to do with this book is say, let's have a different relationship with our memories. Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn't mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they're shaped by who we are now. They're shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are right now.

MARTIN: How much of our memory do we reconstruct because of conversations we have with other people?

FERNYHOUGH: It may not be intentional but it certainly happens. Some of the most interesting research is going on at the moment concerns the social influences on remembering. So, let me give you one example. There's a study done in New Zealand of pairs of twins. And what they did is they brought the twins separately and ask them about events from the past. And they have something like 20 pairs of twins.

In 14 of those 20 pairs, each twin would come up with a memory that the other one also claimed. For example, one was swinging across the river on a rope, and then slipping from the rope and falling into the river. Both members of the twin pair were claiming that memory. They can't both have done it. One of them must be making it up. One of them must have appropriated that memory for themselves. And we're doing this sort of thing all the time.

We're shaping each other's memories all the time, and particularly in the case of parents and children. So parents are talking about the past all the time. The conversations they have with their kids about the past turned out to be very important for those kids' later memory. But also doing things like, you know, one day packing the video camera and taking footage of the day that, you know, the daytrip or whatever. Another day is not doing so.

MARTIN: As a new parent that feels like a lot of pressure.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kind of a strange power to have.

FERNYHOUGH: Oh, yeah. I don't want to add to the list of things that parents feel...

(LAUGHTER)

FERNYHOUGH: ...guilty and anxious about. But also, as couples we're doing this all the time. I think one of the most interesting things about memory in relation to couples getting together is that there's this sense, this kind of pressure to agree on a shared representation of the past. You know, husbands and wives tend not to disagree about the past, you know, wholesale. They tend to come to a shared representation of what happened in the past.

When people split up or couples get separated or divorced or whatever, those tensions about memory can come back to the surface. And you find out that people start to disagree and actually say, Well, I never - it's never happened that way; it actually happened this way.

MARTIN: Do you think we can make our memories sharper?

FERNYHOUGH: Well, partly thinking about this book made me realize that remembering more stuff isn't necessarily better. Being able to recall every card in a pack of playing cards or recall pi to a thousand decimal places - why? Why would you want to do that? It's no use to me. For some people it might be important, but it's no use at all for me.

What I would like to do is remember the stuff that I remember better, in more detail, more vividly.

MARTIN: And you think that's possible that you can get better at remembering?

FERNYHOUGH: I don't have any strong scientific evidence to point to. But having thought a lot about how memory works, my hunch is that by paying more attention to what's going on around you, you can encode the events more fully. You can pick up more of those details that later goes on to make that big, rich picture. And so, you can have a more intense and more enjoyable, if you like, a more vivid experience of that event when you come back to it.

It's just trying to live the moment more intensely.

MARTIN: Charles Fernyhough, his new book is called "Pieces of Light." He's an associate professor of psychology at Durham University in the U.K.

Charles, thanks so much for talking with us.

FERNYHOUGH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Do you remember your first memory? Share it with us on Twitter. I am @rachelnpr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.