Monday, November 18, 2013

On the fallibility of autobiographical memories

I suspect that most people who have not actively studied the subject have a fairly naive view of how autobiographical memories work. They imagine our memories of events in our lives to be little home movies, tucked away in slots in our brains, ready to be recalled when prompted by circumstance or demanded by our conscious selves.

That this model is entirely inadequate was brought home to me the other day when I was recalling a particular drive I used to take on a weekly routine in my early 20s, when I lived in England. The memory was crisp and detailed, including the undulations of the road, signposts to various villages along the route, and the appearance of the landscape at different times of year. Just one detail was wrong: in my memory, I was driving on the right and sitting in the left-hand seat, as one would in America or Europe; of course, since these events took place in England, the reverse would have been how it actually took place.

As I thought about it more, I realized that the same was true for (almost) all of my memories of England involving cars. In my mind's eye I am opening the wrong door, getting in or out of the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road. Only by a conscious effort of will can I restore the image in my head to how reason tells me it actually must have happened.

What this tells us is that autobiographical memories are not really like a movie, but more like the script of a movie. Somewhere in my memory is stored a script about that familiar drive, perhaps associated with a high-fidelity description or image of the landscape, and a slug line such as:

EXT. DAY: CARL drives a late-model compact through winding country roads.

...and from that, like a movie director, my brain constructs the movie, using its library of backdrops and knowledge of what driving involves. Only now that I have spent more years driving on the right than I ever did on the left, it defaults to the more habitual perspective, like an American movie director setting a scene in England and forgetting that they drive on the other side there.

I said "almost" above, for good reason. A few of my English driving memories are correctly oriented, invariably ones involving some amount of drama. For example, once while driving on the M25 I was witness to a multiple-car pile-up that caused a huge back-up on both sides of the motorway. In my memory of that event, I remember every moment with great precision, including which lane I was in and how I avoided being part of the accident myself.

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