Our memories make us what we are. We remember what we were, what we did, how we failed and succeeded. With that, we fashion ourselves, our image, our ambitions, what we believe we really are and can do.
The boy who cracked a joke or two in class and got a good response continued to be the class joker, to whom all turned for a funny line. And the one who scored a spectacular goal and got the loudest approbation of his life, kept trying, Heaven knows to what end, to be a football star. I have known of a girl who sang a popular ditty in a school program to unwonted cheers and spent the rest of her life trying to recapture the ecstasy of her life’s sweetest memory. Alas, her singing career went nowhere. That is how memory rules our life.
What a great spoiler knowledge is! The moon that we believed to a silvery dream turns out to be a cold cluster of dust and sand. Now I find that whatever I thought I knew about memory is quite wrong. There is not a special part of our brain that keeps our memories. There are many distinct parts of our brain that hold our memories in diverse ways. What we hold in our memory is not a picture – not even of my mother’s face – but bits and pieces of a picture, and the rest is filled in by random imagination.
We used to think that if memories evoked strong feelings – if, for example, you remembered your father hitting your mother or a cousin sleeping with your sister – your memories had to be genuine. No longer. Salvador Dali, who painted the most memorable canvases about memory, said that memories were like gems: the false ones looked the most brilliant and real. In the nineties several children ‘recovered’ memories under therapy of child abuse which were later discredited. Yet, under visualization, suggestion and hypnosis, they brought out detailed memories, which recounted horrific stories of abuses that shocked the world.
Even more dramatic are the stories of confessions by people who speak credibly though falsely of having killed people and go to the death row. Six young blacks were incarcerated six to twelve years for admitting to the rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. The local police, like law enforcers in many countries, used well-honed techniques of suggestion and coercion to get them to accept culpability for crimes they never committed. In criminal courts, witnesses daily swear to ‘clear’ memories of crimes they think they have seen and send innocent people to prison. Witnesses, who have seen from a distance or in poor light a crime, confidently testify to an identification that sends hapless suspects to the gallows.
Scientists are hard at work trying to develop markers in our brain that would help us separate real memories from imagined remembrances, put in place by clever suggestions or involuntary imaginings. In a world of million suggestions – advertisements and persuasions that work repeatedly on our mind, subtly, insidiously – we really don’t know what a genuine memory is and what is something we have imagined and retained. The British Psychological Society has realized how tenuous it is to decide cases on the basis of memory-based testimony of witnesses and has written a guideline to alert lawyers and judges.
The wretched writer, like me, who searches in his penumbral past for nuggets of memory, uncertain what is a real memory and what is just a backward-looking imagination pretending to be a genuine memory, writes in naïve faith what he believes to be a part of his past. And so, in all modesty, I have to recognize the faint line that separates a genuine memory from an imagined past and humbly admit that truth, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.