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The Impersistence of Memory, Part 2

Human memory is peculiarly unreliable–but verifiably unreliable. The science is there, and it’s pretty good science, too. In his excellent book, On Being Certain, neurologist Robert A. Burton describes the Challenger study: Within a day of the Challlenger disaster, a psychologist asked 106 of his students to write down precisely where they were when the explosion occurred, how they heard about it, and how they felt at that moment. Two and a half years later (hardly a lifetime, though significant for the young) the students were interviewed, and asked to recount the details of what they had written down and given to their professor. Fewer than ten percent of the students recalled all of the details correctly as they had written them. A quarter of the students’ memories were significantly different, and over half had some major differences with what they had recorded at the time.

Thirty months–and an event that stands in many people’s memories (including my own) as one of the most striking events of their lifetime. Intriguingly, even when confronted with their original notes written the day after the event, many students with conflicting memories insisted that their current memories were correct. As one said, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”


I’ve been struck in recent years with an increasing number of things that happened that I don’t remember, things I remember incorrectly, and (disturbingly) things that I remember vividly that simply didn’t happen at all. I introduced this topic with a simple example: A friend of mine found a college-era manuscript of a short story I wrote that I just don’t remember writing. Getting old, I guess. The bitchy part is that it’s a pretty good story, and it was completely outside my usual aliens-and-starships turf. Somehow I would have thought it would make a more vivid impression on me.

But we forget things. Odder are things we remember vividly that we in fact remember wrong. Forty-three years ago, when I was in eighth grade, I remember talking to a girl in my class and stumbling on the fact that her father had died. Forty years later, I ran into her again at our grade-school reunion, and it came out that it was her mother and not her father who had died. The original conversation was painful, and I remember painful things very well–you’d think I would have remembered it more accurately. In a different conversation with the same girl, I asked her what high school she would be attending that fall. I remember her indicating one Catholic girls’ school, but in fact (again, verified forty years later) she had attended another. She had never even considered the school that I remember her saying, because it was a fair ways off and the other school was within walking distance.

But I remember both conversations to this day, with the sort of clarity one would expect of a bright if nerdy kid attempting to make conversation with a girl he was a little sweet on. It took considerable courage to talk to her at all, and those are the things of which solid memories are made.

Except when they’re not, I guess.

It was that particular incident that started me looking critically at my own memories, especially those that could be verified somehow. I found a lot of little things that didn’t add up, including a few “flashbulb” memories (as psychologists call them) that one would expect would be vivid and indelible forever. The most recent one is something I chased down just the other day: I vividly remember the first time I kissed Carol–who wouldn’t?–and I remember that it was after we started school in the fall, which would be at least five or six weeks after we met at the end of July. Well, on the back of her 3 X 5 card in my teen-years telephone index box (which still exists among piles of oddments I’m amazed that I still have) is the note “kissed 8/16/69.” That was only two weeks after our most fateful meeting, and school was still another two weeks off. (Remember when school started after Labor Day?)

If I don’t remember that accurately, well, what hope for the rest of it? What kind of life did I actually live?

Stand by: The weirdest part is yet to come.


  1. Gary Kato says:

    Reminds me of a scene from “They Might Be Giants” where “Sherlock Holmes” is reading about Justin Playfair and just can’t remember any of the events from Playfair’s life.

    Many years ago, someone asked how one went about attaching icons to a newly written Macintosh program. I flashed that I had a printout of an email that explained it. I hunted it down and it was a very well written email of all the step to be taken. I decided I should keep track of whoever wrote the memo in case I ever needed someone to explain something Macintosh to me and found that I was the one who had written the email a few years before. I half expected Rod Serling to step out of the shadows.

  2. Tom R. says:


    With your Contrapositive diary you should have more and more chances to check your memory of past events. I started a paper journal using just Stenographer’s Notebooks back in 1971 on my way to South East Asia for a little unpleasantness in that part of the world.

    I have kept it up (the journal — not the unpleasantness) on a fairly regular basis ever since. The format is simple, I write the date including the day of the week near the left margin and underline it — this helps in searching by date.

    I now have a stack of Steno Notebooks on a shelf here in my office that does record most (but somehow not all) major events in my life for over 38 years. At times I have gone back and found my original record of some event that I WAS remembering very differently. It was really hard for me to believe that what I wrote then is what really happened and not my more recent “memory” of the event.

    By the way, there is NO good search function for a stack of pen and paper notebooks! Especially with MY hand writing!


    1. Actually, I’ve been doing that for years: Carol will say something like, When was the first time we went to Lake McConaughy? and I’ll go look it up. But that’s only for the past ten years, and while it will become very useful over the next 30 or so until I get my Major Upgrade, hard recorded data on my first 45-ish years is pretty thin.

      It’s starting to look like I’ve touched a nerve here, and brought into the lights a phenomenon that hasn’t been written about much and isn’t widely accepted: Human memory is a very, very messy business. More in coming days.

  3. Jeff:

    I’m reading a book about just this phenomenon: Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist; the book is about why people are so bad at predicting what will make them happy. (It’s a popular science book, not a self-helper.)

    Gilbert presents studies showing that people will remember key events, but will recall details *based on today’s reality* as opposed to detailed recording of past events. Essentially, we fill in the blanks (making it up as we go along) when we need to remember things, instead of playing back a recording. It’s a much more resource efficient system — except when it’s the details that you need.

    Nice to read you again after so long.

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