(about Goodale Park memories, eyewitness testimony, and…I forget what else)
The recently proposed Goodale Park playground plan brought back memories of the old days in the park. As if it were yesterday, I remember swinging my young son on the swingset while he squealed “Higher! Higher!” I also remember less giddy moments back in those days, routinely walking gingerly through a less-pristine park every time we went to the playground. Back then, we always kept our eyes trained on the grassy ground, looking down intently as we carefully worked our way through the minefield of dog poop.
At least, that’s how I remember it. The park seems so much cleaner now, it’s hard to believe it was ever such a mess. Was it? I don’t have any pictures to prove it.
My memory is unreliable. For example, I routinely go to my basement to fetch a tool, only to be distracted by the laundry. I inevitably throw a load in, forget my original purpose, end up back upstairs, realize that I don’t have what I went down for, and go back down again. Or I head out the back door bound for Giant Eagle, only to discover while I’m in the produce section that I forgot my grocery list.
This seems to be getting worse. I definitely feel that my memory was better when I was younger; I feel that my memory is atrophying as I age. And yet, longitudinal research demonstrates that we all misremember how good our memories were when we were younger.
Against the flow of my feelings, my experience working with college students suggests that those studies are correct. Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that at some point in our meetings, students often pause, look frustrated, and tell me they forgot some of the questions they wanted to ask me. They also talk about their own experiences with “basement forgetting” in their residence halls and apartments. I’m seeing in action the poor memories that will someday be remembered as excellent.
It seems as though no one can claim a truly accurate memory. For example, lots of evidence suggests that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The New Jersey court system even has specific guidelines that judges read to juries before deliberation, to warn them of the precarious nature of the “truth” that they’ve heard on the witness stand. Video recordings of events regularly conflict with the recollections of the people who were present. And all of our recollections are essentially the same as this; our own recollections are all by definition “eyewitness accounts”. And as such, they are unreliable and precarious.
My memories of the dog poop in Goodale Park, my memories of my own fun and carefree childhood, my memory of my neighbor’s reaction to a presumably very humorous and witty story that I told him, and my memory of who promised to take responsibility for the Goodale elephant fountain water pumps — they’re all potential hogwash.
So when I recollect the story of my life, how much can I trust? More research has shown that we really only remember a few scenes from each life event, like a handful of photographs. Each time we remember a particular event, like a weeklong beach vacation, we naively stitch these scenes together with freshly invented details. In fact, the more often we recall them, the more likely is our confabulation.
And I guess this isn’t surprising. My friend Jake clarified this for me during a visit last year (or was it two years ago?), when he explained that every time I think I’m remembering an event, I’m not remembering the actual event (which is what I’ve always been confident that I was doing). Instead, each recollection of an event is actually my recollection of my last memory of the event. Let that sink in for a moment: we are never remembering the original event that we experienced! This is both mind-boggling and distressing to me, but at least it explains why my stories are so suspect.
The process of remembering our stories is an internal version of the “telephone” game we played as a kids. And I remember (or at least I think I do) how garbled and unrecognizable those messages became after just a few exchanges of whispered sharing as each person recited what they believed they just heard.
Garbled messages…garbled memories…is there any hope? Can I ever know what has actually happened? I think that there is hope, and in light of the research, there’s only one sensible way for me to be sure of my memory. I have to stop thinking about that dog poop.