Memory Is Unreliable, but It’s All We Have

Memory’s shifting nature forms the imperfect, elusive foundation we need to build the story of who we are and the world around us.

Feb 15, 2024

Memory Is Unreliable, but It’s All We Have

Memory is fallible. In one of those rare instances, it is an uncontested fact of life. Despite this truth, it feels impossible my memories, so vivid and life-like, can range from inaccurate to completely imagined. The very foundation of myself is built upon a vulnerable, corruptible foundation. To make further complex, memory for many is one of the only mechanisms we have to hold onto the experiences we had, the people we love, and the people we were. 

Most of us have experienced someone saying as we’re mid-story, “That’s not what happened…,” and their memory challenges everything we thought we knew about the moment. The reality is that somewhere between the two versions lies the truth, and it is easy to fixate on where their line begins and where mine ends. I try to find the hole or the edge where imagination and reality meet. I try to find the exact moment of the memory that shows my imagination has filled in the gaps. The exact edge that reveals what I’m remembering isn’t an accurate reflection of the moment. I worry about the untruths and potential lies my mind has created to fill in the blanks when it’s the essence of the memory that matters, not the facts of it. 

My brother and I have terrible memories. There’s so much of our childhood that we don’t remember. Sometimes when I’m talking to my brother about the past, he’ll ask, “That happened?” or mutter, “I don’t remember that.” A sobering realization that he remembers even less than I do. Moments of our childhood has been erased. For the rest of our lives, there will be experiences we won’t recall, friends we don’t remember, laughter and exploration that’s disappeared.

One glimpse of hope is that those experiences are still living in our bodies buried within a synapse waiting for just the right stimulus to unlock it. Another is the people in our lives who help rebuild our past for us and keep it alive. An added spark of hope is the memories are alive within our very person by the way they helped shape us and lead us to who we are today. They may be unattainable through recall, but our bodies hold onto the truth in its own way.

I have a few select childhood memories I hang onto for dear life. Every now and then, I’ll let the memory slip off the shelf and overcome me as an exercise to keep the memory in good shape, like keeping a muscle from atrophy. These recollections are primarily about those in my family who’ve passed away. The few ghostly memories I have of my uncle, the memories I have of my grandfather (which mostly consists of him sitting or standing silently around like he was prone to do), and memories of my dad. 

One of my favorite memories of my dad is when we were watching Jack Frost, one of those so-bad-but-it’s-the-only-movie-on kind of movies. In the movie, Michael Keaton is given a chance to help his family heal by miraculously returning as an animated snowman a year after his death. It’s a random movie perfect for a random weekend afternoon. My mom, dad, brother, and I are all lounging around watching the movie in the ambient light of the midafternoon sun. For some reason as the movie nears the end, I turn and look at my dad to find him, a certified “manly man,” wiping his eyes. Out of pure shock from rarely seeing my dad cry, I yell, “Dad, are you crying?!” He’s sitting on the floor up against the blue couch my grandfather gave my parents when they got married with his arm propped up against the seat wiping his tears away with the back of his other hand as he laughs this deep, throaty laugh that makes his whole body rumble when he bellows, “No!” It wasn’t too long ago during one of my memory exercises that I realized his tears meant he saw himself in Michael Keaton’s character as he imagined a moment that take place not too many years later when he too would never see his family again.

The research on memory reveals that it excels in some ways and fails in others. Part of the failure of memory is not what we do remember but that we only remember a fraction of what we experience. Based on some studies, of the fraction we do remember, we remember really well for the short-term, but we begin to lose the sharpness of memory as time goes on. Another contributing factor to the unreliability of memory is the weight of our expectations. The stronger our expectations are regarding how a moment should be, the more that will warp the memory away from what is.

Our senses can fool us, but, contradictorily, our senses are the primary way we draw conclusions about the world we live in. In the Aeon article, “Why Doesn’t Physics Help Us to Understand the Flow of Time,” writer Corey Powell muses:

“The Atomist Greek philosopher Democritus…[argued] we come to the conclusion that the senses can fool us, but it is through evidence from the senses that we have come to that conclusion. This realization lead [sic] to a sophisticated philosophical understanding of how we come to know things about the world: not by trusting our senses naively, but by testing our thoughts of how the world works empirically. It is an insight that has borne tremendous fruit, yet one that counsels perennial humility.”

Though Powell is talking about the senses, this can also be applied to memory. The memories that are integral to who we are and how we understand and view the world are inherently flawed, yet they’re the foundation for much of how we perceive not only the world but ourselves—especially for those of us born in a time where our lives were either stilled or captured only in the vestiges of memory.

How do we rationalize the unreliability of memory with its critical positionality in our lives?

I think it comes down to story. Memories become the stories of ourselves and reflect what we need, and they shift and form to meet that need. The memory of my dad is exactly how I want to remember him in a rare moment of vulnerability, as a person with emotions and fears. A version of him my brother and I rarely saw as children. Within the memory, the essence of the reality is there regardless if the facts hold up. Because, in the end, the facts aren’t as important as how we felt or what we experienced that formed or changed us. 

This may only be a point of contention because we have so clearly drawn a line between objectivity and subjectivity. With the rise of (what I think of as the myth of) objectivity and the move away from storytelling, there has been a retreat from learning about our history, the world, and ourselves through story. There are countless indigenous myths that have withstood millennia and have succeeded in keeping history alive. History that modern science is just “discovering”—a truth indigenous peoples have been saying for years. Yet, we’ve placed modern science on a pedestal while letting traditional oral history fall to the wayside when they could, should, and occasionally do coexist.

There is a place for facts. There is a place for stories. Sometimes, we need both. The reality is our mind is primed to hold onto stories. Memory may not be reliable, but it is the basis of the myth of who we are. Our memories shift and change and will continue to shift and change to retain the past and become what we need in the moment, and that is exact right foundation. Memory is to us like the shifting sand used in the foundation of buildings in earthquake zones. The foundation can support a shift in one direction or another while keeping the overall building intact just like we preserve the essence of memories but allow them to also shift to keep them alive and relatable throughout the waning days of our lives.