When I cast back to an event from my past – let’s say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea – I don’t just conjure up dates and times and places (what psychologists call “semantic memory”). I do much more than that. I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of “now” intervene.
Memories are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.
When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present. The memory researcher Martin Conway has described how two forces go head to head in remembering. The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts; the force of coherence wants to tell a good story.
That’s how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self.
If we can be more honest about memory’s quirks, we can get along with it better. When I think back to my first attempt at solo swimming, it doesn’t bother me that I have probably got some of the details wrong. It might be a fiction, but it’s my fiction, and I treasure it. Memory is like that. It makes storytellers of us all.