How do Experiences become Memories?

Posted by on Feb 4, 2014 in Archive, Documentary, Family | No Comments
Remembering ©Ellen Cantor

Behavioural economist and Nobel Memorial prize winner Daniel Kahneman says that:

All of us roughly know what memory is — sort of the storage of the past, such as we have it. It’s the storage of what we know. It’s the storage of our personal experiences.

It is very easy to confuse the memory with the real experience. Kahneman says that we have two selves. We have the present self, that lives solely in the present, focussing on the now. And there is a remembering self, that stores the memories of the past. The remembering self is a storyteller and our memory tells us the stories of experiences we choose to keep.

How we remember an experience depends on significant moments and how it ended. If the experience ended negatively, we are likely to have a negative memory of it. He gives an example of a man telling him about when he was listening to a beautiful symphony and at the end there was this horrific screeching noise. He then said, with great emotion, that it “ruined the whole experience.” But did it? He had twenty minutes of beautiful music, but the memory of listening to it was tainted by the screeching at the end, which dictated how he remembers it.

But what about the everyday experiences? They surely count for something as they are a significant part of our life. The truth is, nearly everyone doesn’t remember them. There are no highs or lows, so they aren’t significant enough for us to keep a memory of them.

Kahneman suggests that all memory to some extent is reconstructed. Because we only remember the significant points and the endings of experiences, there is an element of fabrication in retelling them. He says that some memories come with compelling sense of truth, and that happens to be the case for memories that are not true. This shows the complexities of the human brain, and how we can trick ourselves in believing something that may not necessarily be true.

©Hollie Woodward 2014

©Hollie Woodward 2014

In the context of family photography, this can also be the case. If we were to see a photograph of ourselves as a child, we have the ability to fabricate the experience of being there. With the photograph of myself above, I can picture being sat in the chair with my father behind me and I can picture what I would of seen; the kitchen in front of me, with brown patterned carpet and plain walls.  I can visualise it so clearly that I could start to believe it to be true. But it isn’t. I have no recollection of this experience. In this image, I am not even two years old, and I have no memory of living in that house at all. My visualisation is based on remembering other photographs taken in this house, so I now have the ability to map out what our house may have looked like.

Like the example of the man remembering the beautiful symphony with a negative outlook, we can do the same with photographs. But with family snapshots, our memories of what is depicted has the ability to change depending on recent events. An example would be a wedding album, filled with photographs of a couple that are no longer together. These photographs would have once been full of happy memories about one of the biggest days of their lives. How the relationship of the couple ended dictates the memories we keep of the album. If there were a lot of arguments and disagreements, we may start to look at the album and only associate the negative happenings with it. The pictures depict a relationship that has an end, and it’s the ending that becomes the memory, as Kahneman suggested.

So can we trust our memory? Can we trust it to give us an authentic recollection of an experience? Personally, I don’t think so. The mind is too complex, we pollute the memory ourselves.

Resources

Kahneman, D. (2010) Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory [online] available from <http://www.ted.com/playlists/4/what_makes_us_happy.html> [11 January 2014]

Raz, G., (2013) Memory Games [online] available from <http://www.npr.org/2013/05/09/182667116/memory-games> [11 January 2014]

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