How can we Trust our Memories?

When we think back to past events, how can we know that they're accurate? Can we reminisce over things that never happened?

If there’s one thing that I have learnt over the past few years, it’s how easily manipulated people can be. Anything from our actions to our fickle memories. False memories are a more common phenomena than you would think. How many of your memories are false? You wouldn't know - you can't know for certain. 90% of them could be completely fabricated. But you trust that most of the memories you have are real. I for one, know of some false memories that I have, merely due to logical inconsistencies in how the story in my head goes. When I think back to them, my brain realises the incongruency and tries to fix it by ‘remembering’ something else so that it makes sense. I can clearly remember both memories, knowing that at least one of them is incorrect. I honestly don’t know which parts of that story are real any more.

Matching your memories with someone else's appears to be a good safeguard against false memories. But mass delusions are possible, and, again, are common. The Mandela effect is when a large group of people all experience a mass delusion, they misremember an event. It came from when Nelson Mandela died in 2013, many people thought that he died in the 1980. Many were convinced that he died rather than being released from prison and going on to become president of South Africa. Some have attributed this to some freaky stuff like split universes colliding. I think it’s more likely that people are experiencing a mass delusion.

Memories can even be inserted into people. Leading questions and carefully selected words can make people misremember events. It’s why eye witness testimony is incredibly unreliable. People will misremember things that had JUST happened. This paper is incredibly interesting if you wanted to look at how bad people are at remembering things. Even when someone steals something in plain sight in front of a classroom of people, they can’t even agree on what colour jacket the guy was wearing. There is even talk of how some ‘repressed memories’ that are brought out in therapy aren’t actually memories at all, and are instead false memories that were created. Of course there’s no malicious intent to insert these false memories, it would instead be the subject trying to help themselves and their therapist. Who knows, this may actually be helpful (unless it goes to court and someone gets accused for something that they did not do). But maybe for the subject it might be good for them to face trauma that they never actually faced. Again, who knows? I'm just a writer.

I was with a friend the other day and I asked to show her a song. I started playing it and she said I had already shown her it a few days ago when I was drunk. I obviously had no memory of this. But when she told me, I later thought back and bits of the memory came back to me. I remember jamming out to it and singing to bits of it in the car. But, how can I know that's what happened? How can I know that that wasn’t my mind retroactively creating a memory? What if, instead, I showed her a different song and that I hadn’t previously shown her, and then she lied saying I had shown her it. Would my mind have produced similar, but false memories? How am I able to trust any of these memories? I have faith that she wasn’t needlessly lying, but it brings up an important realisation when it comes to memories.

One cannot distinguish between a false memory and a real one. All your memories, false or otherwise, feel true.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that, generally speaking, the further away a memory is, the more likely it will be to be false. But how distant must a memory be to achieve this? What about recent ones? What is physically stopping your mind from producing fake memories from 5 minutes ago?

Today, I was certain that I went to work, later to the gym then I came home and started writing. Who’s to say I am remembering any of that correctly? Could it not be possible that I instead went swimming and murdered some innocent people, in a state of panic and disbelief, my brain fabricated some memories in order to remain sane? How would I handle being confronted with incontrovertible proof that I was a murderer? Would I suddenly remember everything I did, and realise that what I thought was correct was actually a false memory? Or would I live in a state of denial, protesting my innocence and sincerely believing I was not guilty until my death?

Even today, I was parking my car and as I was getting out someone angrily yelled out to me that I need to be more careful around old people and children. I had no clue what she was talking about. I tried to think back about what I had just did, but nothing came to me. It's entirely possible that I almost ran someone over and my mind just wiped it. Or maybe she is misremembering the last 20 seconds. How can we trust our minds when they can be so out of tune with reality?

If you’re expecting answers, I’m sorry to disappoint. Unless we create the Grain, as seen in Black Mirror, memories will always be subject to falsity. However I get the feeling that the show is designed as a warning system for technology, not a guide.