Memory: The Truth About the Lies You Tell Yourself

The gist: Your memory is unreliable even though you think it isn’t, and it will lead you astray even though you think it won’t.

Your life has unfolded much differently than you remember it now. Does that surprise you?

All of the good times you look back on now didn’t really happen the way you think they did. Many of the bad times weren’t nearly as terrible as you remember.

And all the stories you hear about the “good old days” from your parents and grandparents? Mostly fabrications.

This is what it means to be a human being.

We’re the most advanced and intelligent creatures on Earth, yet we’re still riddled with flaws—most of them unrecognizable to us. One of the biggest is our inability to accurately remember the things that happen to us. This is our lot in life, and we’ve learned to deal with it quite effectively but, from time to time, it wreaks considerable havoc.

For all of the beautiful and terrifying experiences we capture through the synapses in our brains—the snapshots that form our lives—it turns out that relying on memories to inform our future decision-making may be a bigger risk than we once thought.

Perhaps this is why we developed the written language—a less than conscious realization that we’re not be trusted with our own thoughts for longer than it takes to write them down.

To prove this point, I’d like to use you as part of a highly unscientific study I’ve concocted.

You Be the Witness

Below is a video of an arrest taking place on the side of a freeway in Georgia. In the video, Kenneth Walker—unarmed and restrained on the ground—is shot to death by police. It was a case of mistaken identity mixed with a side of confusion; the police were in pursuit of a group of armed gang members traveling in a vehicle similar to the one pulled over and noticeably nervous.

When it appeared to one trooper that Kenneth was trying to free his arm—presumably to retrieve a weapon—he shot and killed him.

The video is taken from a police dashboard camera. I want you to imagine that you’re watching this scene unfold in front of you. You’re a witness to the event, and all the details are important, but pay special attention to Kenneth, who is pulled from the passenger side of the vehicle and restrained between the car and the freeway barrier.

Watch only once. Do not pause.

Warning: This is real police footage, and Kenneth really does get shot. It’s not gory and there is no visible blood, but consider yourself warned.

We’ll come back to this in a minute.

How Innocent People are Systematically Executed

We have a very strange relationship with stories, especially stories that are supposed to reveal important evidence to us. The oddity is that we tend to believe stories—especially eyewitness accounts—over any other form of evidence even though we’ve proven that first-hand accounts are often completely unreliable and the least worthy of our trust.

This is uncontroversial. It’s been proven time and time again in courts across the world as well as through controlled psychological studies. One such study by Amina Memon and Rita Vartoukian in 1996 proved the malleability of a memory by doing nothing more than repeating closed questions (questions with one word answers) over the course of an examination. In a series of questions, repeating closed questions several times drastically reduced the subject’s confidence in their own answer.

You can find an example of this in any popular TV crime drama.

Examiner: What color of hat was the defendant wearing at the time of the robbery?
Witness: I believe it was a green hat.
Examiner: How sure are you about that?
Witness: 99% sure.
Examiner: And you saw the defendant wearing this hat up close?
Witness: No. I was across the room.
Examiner: You were across the room, okay. How far away would you say you were?
Witness: I don’t know. Maybe 40 feet?
Examiner: Hmm, that seems like a long ways away. But you had a direct line of sight? You saw the defendant wearing the hat without any obstruction?
Witness: Well, I was crouched, hiding behind a desk, but I peeked up several times.
Examiner: Just so I get this right, you were across the room hiding behind a desk and you peeked up “a few times” to see what was going on and saw the defendant wearing the hat?
Witness: Yes, that’s right.
Examiner: Remind me again what color the hat was?
Witness: I think it was green.
Examiner: And how sure are you of that?
Witness: About 75% sure.
Examiner: No further questions.

This is a fictional scenario, but it isn’t far from the truth, and any attorney worth her weight in salt knows it. Without ever directly contradicting someone’s story, you can easily cause them to question their own certainty.

Did it really happen that way? I don’t remember anymore…

And on the opposite side of the coin, a study by John Shaw and Kimberley McClure in 1996 provided damning evidence that we also have a keen ability to convince ourselves that something absolutely false is, in fact, true.

In their study, Shaw and McClure staged an interruption of a college classroom in session and then studied the confidence of the students accounts of what happened over the course of five weeks. Through a series of questioning that asked subjects to repeat their recollections, they found that confidence in memory and belief went up regardless of the accuracy of their memory.

This is called the consistency fallacy.

Remember Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—the American game show hosted by Regis Philbin?

I remember watching at home as a contestant would struggle over picking an answer that was obviously wrong. No matter how loudly I yelled at the TV, the contestant would become more and more sure of their answer as they weighed and repeated it over and over again. And how shocked they were to find themselves wrong and going home with a check much smaller than $1 million.

I guess now we have an explanation for such a phenomenon. Is that your final answer?

And what of the study performed in 1991 by Debora Poole and Lawrence White about memory confidence? Perhaps the most important conclusion these two reached is also the least shocking because we’ve all experienced it before. Given a set of incomplete information, we’re overwhelmingly likely to use our own experiences to speculate about the missing details rather than admit we don’t know.

No doubt you’ve participated in some type of gossip involving the bizarre actions of a friend or relative. Lacking an explanation from the source, everyone, including you, had a theory that was “more right” than everyone else’s. Our brains don’t cope well with missing information. We can’t accept incomplete stories, so in place of confusion we create our own connections, regardless of their accuracy.

You know what really happened at the end of that cryptic film that finished with an intentionally ambiguous ending, don’t you? We all do.

When it comes to uncovering the truth, our unique gift of imagination may actually be more of a curse.

If there’s anyone who knows the painful truth about our inability to tell the real truth, it’s Kirk Bloodsworth, twice convicted for the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in 1984. It earned him a death sentence. The jury reached a unanimous decision in only two hours after hearing the accounts of five eyewitnesses.

After nine years in prison, Bloodsworth was exonerated by DNA evidence. If firing squads were used today, you could say he dodged a bullet.

And this is no isolated incident. In 2003, Illinois governor George Ryan made the highly unpopular decision to commute the death sentences of more than 167 inmates after Northwestern journalism students found exonerating evidence for a number of people on death row. Earlier this year, Illinois ended the death sentence in their state altogether.

Of course, this means that we’ve been systematically murdering innocent people for centuries (or longer).

So who’s to blame for these extreme miscarriages of justice?

You are. I am. We all are. We’ve known this all along, but it’s an inconvenient truth.

The Innocence Project, a team dedicated to finding the truth in justice found that eyewitness testimony is to blame for more than 80% of the wrongly convicted cases they’ve solved with DNA evidence.

We thought we remembered correctly. We didn’t.

So, faced with overwhelming and damning evidence to the contrary, why do still believe the stories and memories that people tell us?

I have to imagine it’s because we can relate to another human better than we can to anything else. They’re just like us, after all. And to disregard their ability to recall something that happened right in front of their eyes is akin to admitting that we can’t really remember the important events that happened in front of our own. This is an uncomfortable conclusion to accept, so rather than probe deeper, we quietly accept a lie so as not to undermine our own credibility.

Mommy, Where do Memories Come From?

The most recent research suggests we have about 70,000 “thoughts” each day. Many of these happen at the subconscious level—you’re not doing a lot to control them—but considering the sheer volume of random quips that pass through my own head each day, anecdotally, the number sounds feasible.

And each of those memories requires a complex string of synapses—electrical impulses in the brain—to fire in just the right order to create an image that you can recall later on. Controlling these synapses are proteins, the basic building blocks of life.

Despite decades of intense research, we still don’t know exactly where memories come from—the brain is the most heavily studied and least understood organ in the entire body—but we do know with certainty that they’re not just complex; they’re also fragile.

Case in point: Anna.

There’s a Starbucks just down the street from my house where I go whenever I need a change in my work environment. At three to four visits a week, you could say I’m a regular there. But I’m not the most regular customer. I believe that title belongs to Anna, the mildly brain damaged woman that visits nearly every day. I know Anna because her injury causes her to introduce herself to men in very inappropriate ways. And she doesn’t always remember me (or so she says), so I’m subjected to her flirtation on a regular basis.

On days when I can’t shake her, I try to learn more about her past—about the person Anna was before she became a forgetful seductress.

She has a hard time remembering things now, and she can’t recall her accident at all, but she can vividly remember her childhood and growing up in Portland. As you can imagine, I’ve heard the story several times.

Anna was in a severe car accident in 1998 when she was a sophomore in high school. She also graduated as a senior in 1998. That makes no sense whatsoever, and I’ve pressed her on this, but to Anna, there’s no flaw in her story—this is simply the way things are. Two illogical and competing facts exist together without problem.

Anna’s memory, just like our own, is incredibly fragile, and as the result of a tragic injury, she now misunderstands a significant piece of her own history. At least, that’s how it appears to me and others around her. For Anna, there’s no conflict.

In 2009, scientists captured for the very first time the actual image of a memory being formed. It was a historic day and a major breakthrough for brain science.

Yet for all the knowledge it brings about how memories come to be, it leaves us with troubling conclusions about how memories are, well, remembered.

In 1999, Karim Nader wanted to know if memories were recalled by the exact same proteins that created them. In other words: Do the exact same things happen in our brain when we recall a memory as when we first form it? To test, he taught lab rats to fear a high-pitched tone by applying a mild electric shock to them just after hearing it. After a short conditioning period, the rats became highly stressed and fearful of the tone even when no shock was applied.

Then, he injected the rats with a drug that inhibited the creation of new proteins in the brain. If, after playing the tone, the rats were still fearful, it would indicate that memories are formed only once and solidified.

But the results were much different than expected. After receiving the drug, the rats returned to their pre-treatment state and no longer exhibited any fear of the tone. The implications here are enormous because it suggests that memories are not recalled from exactly the same proteins that created them. They have to be at least partially rebuilt from new proteins each time they’re remembered.

This means that a memory can literally change over time and, even more shockingly, that the simple act of remembering may be what causes a memory to warp and change.

The more you remember something, the more the memory changes and the further it gets from objective reality. You may literally be changing your history each time you think about it.

Did it Really Happen That Way?

And there’s no way to predict exactly what you’ll remember in the first place. When scientists tried to discover a pattern using a pool of test subjects and a stable of equally novel experiences to subject them to, there was no correlation whatsoever between the subjects and the experiences that were remembered.

Each subject was unique. The only hypothesis that can be drawn from the results is that each person, with their own unique set of previous experiences—distorted as they may be—heavily influences what types of things are remembered in the future.

Of course, if this is true, then the doors are open for biased memories and memories based on prior experiences and expectations. You may remember only what you subconsciously want to, whether it’s accurate or not.

Your memory is highly susceptible to contamination. Another strike.

Getting Better at Remembering

The memories you create of the events in your life are suspect, highly susceptible to contamination, and there’s no way to predict with any regularity what, in fact, you’ll actually remember.

It’s a grim outlook, but all hope is not lost for memory. Despite its unreliability, there is one way that you can carefully and accurately control your mind: intentional memory.

When you set out to learn something, learn it, and then remember it, you’re creating what we’ll refer to as an intentional memory. Schools and education programs across the world rely on intentional memory to teach the skills we need to survive together in society but, on the whole, they do it very poorly.

If you need proof, just try to remember anything important that you learned on purpose in your least favorite high school class. Perhaps the vague concepts remain, but chances are you’ll struggle to pull any truly useful information from them.

What most schools fail to implement is a good system for remembering to remember. Where they fail, though, you can excel.

The useful information that you learn, remember and, most importantly, how long you remember it, is governed by a scientific phenomenon called the forgetting curve.

It’s an equation discovered in the late 1800s by Hermann Ebbinghaus through a series of exhaustive self-studies.

Though you don’t realize it now, there’s a line that can be drawn on a graph that explains quite precisely just how long you’ll remember that flashcard you’re studying for your quiz next week.

The forgetting curve rules your memory, and it’s a harsh dictator, indeed. In fact, more than 50% of the information you learn at any given time is gone in less than 20 minutes. 80% after just 24-48 hours

But the forgetting curve has a loophole. When Ebbinghaus discovered the curve, he also discovered a way to beat it by perfectly timing the reminders your brain needs to retain the information it’s going to forget.

If you want to remember everything you’ve ever learned, all you must do is recall each piece at just the right moment. In this sense, re-learning is much easier than learning—like remembering how to ride a bike. The problem is, with all of the responsibilities and complexities that come with a modern life, it’s highly impractical to try to implement these re-memory events even if you were able to accurately figure out when they should happen.

But a modern world also comes with modern amenities. You don’t have to look far anymore to find free or inexpensive memory improvement tools; a quick Google search returns about 134 million results. Perhaps the best option, though, comes from Piotr Wozniak, a reclusive genius in Poland who’s dedicated his life to the study of memory retention.

And it shows. Wozniak is a master of memory. His application is called Super Memo and it’s available online or for free on the iPhone. Using timed reminders, Super Memo utilizes the “spacing effect” to deliver information you need to remember at exactly the perfect moment which is, of course, right before you forget it.

He’s been criticized for the prices of some of his courses, but I’ve yet to read one complaint about how well it works, something even the most ardent objectors seem to admit to.

Right now, I’m using one of Super Memo’s free courses to memorize the capitals of all 50 U.S. states—something I learned years ago but, like most people, never retained.

Software can help us remember things we learn on purpose, but what about the rest of our lives? What about all the wonderful, terrible, and mediocre experiences we have by accident that become more and more distorted with each passing day?

Short of videotaping your entire life, I don’t know that there is something that can be done. And maybe there shouldn’t be. It is, after all, these distortions of memory that allow us to look back fondly on times of hardship or criticize poor decision that seemed right in the moment. Our skewed memories are the source of our nostalgia.

Lately, I’ve been keeping a daily journal and, rather than focusing on the story of my day or how I felt, I’ve been recording only the cold, hard facts, much like a policeman would take notes at the scene of a crime. It’s noticeably distant and not very fun—sometimes even embarrassing—but perhaps it will help me someday remember my world as it really was. Of course, there’s no evidence to suggest that it actually will.

Maybe our delicate and ever-changing memories serve a purpose. We probably shouldn’t be using them to accurately recall facts or decide the fates of the accused, but maybe we can still use them for our own enjoyment and amusement. Maybe we can still use them to understand what it is to be human—what it feels like to be inconsistent and occasionally irrational.

What do we risk by giving up our memories? And what’s the risk of holding onto them?

It’s hard to say for sure, but one thing we now know with certainty is that they’re totally unreliable.

Remember that police video you watched earlier? Remember how I told you that it was really important to pay attention? Imagine that, after the shooting, all the troopers on the scene corroborated the shooting policeman’s story and you were brought in as a witness to testify.

One of the trial lawyers asks you:

Were there any policemen on the scene whose view of the shooting could have been obstructed? Is it possible that any officers could not have possibly seen the event?

You remember that there were other suspects being arrested on the other side of the car, and you answer that those officers couldn’t possibly have seen what happened.

The next question is obvious:

How many policemen were on the other side of the car at the time of the shooting?

Update 2/14/13: The official survey is now closed, but you can still make a guess and watch the video again to see if you got it right. Based on results so far (36% correct response rate), the odds are against you. 🙂

Sources critical to the creation of this article:

Illinois governor signs death penalty ban
Repeated postevent questioning can lead to elevated levels of eyewitness confidence [abstract only]
How Our Brains Make Memories
Brain Scans Show How Memories are Formed
The Relationship Between Confidence and Accuracy: Current Thoughts of the Literature and a New Area of Research [pdf]
Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts
Eyewitness identification
Forgetting curve
Effects of question repetition on the eyewitness testimony of children and adults. [abstract only]
The effects of repeated questioning on young children’s eyewitness testimony [abstract only]
Eyewitness Testimony [abstract only]
Age and schematic differences in the reliability of eyewitness testimony [abstract only]
Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm

Images by: garlandcannon,, LifeSupercharger, Austin Kleon,