Sunday, July 10, 2011

The fallible mind

As I mentioned in the last post about where we store our memories, today I want to explore the reliability of our memories. Does anyone remember the beginning of Remember the days when you not only had to have a college email address to use it, but only certain universities were eligible? It was a big deal to have an account on I distinctly remember being a little sad that I could not get an account because I had let my University of Michigan email address lapse after graduation, and the University of Arizona (where I attended law school) was not one of the “elite” universities. Bummer. Yep, I remember being at the University of Arizona without a facebook account. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Of course, this memory is factually incorrect. My friend remembers using facebook with me when I lived in France, which was before I went to Arizona. She was so certain that she went all the way back to 2004 on her wall to make sure. She was right; she found a post from me while I was in France.

But what about that memory of mine? It may seem trite to use a memory about facebook on a blog post about the fallibility of memory, but unfortunately it is my clearest “incorrect” memory.

Can our memories be so fallible? Are we really unable to trust what we “know” to be true? The answer is a perfect lawyer answer – it depends. We have known for years that eyewitness testimony can be very unreliable, but few of us have turned that knowledge on ourselves to ask whether our own memories are true.

One psychologist who has studied the fallibility of memory for decades had the table turned when her uncle informed her that it was she who discovered her mother dead in a pool when she was a child. The death, which she had repressed for years, started to come back, the memories of finding her mother floating in the pool, began to flood her daily thoughts, but then her brother called to say their uncle had been mistaken; someone else had found her mother. So where had the “memories” of finding her mother originated? If this can happen to a woman who studies these issues, it could happen to any of us.

Think about your memories from childhood. Do you remember them, or has the story become family lore, and with the story, the memory embeds itself into your mind? Think about the stories you tell over and over again. Has anyone ever told you that you used to tell it differently, that you now embellish it?

But then the question becomes – does it even matter? What is true for you remains true for you. I still remember not having a facebook account until I was in law school. But now I’m starting to second guess it . . .

Certainly this is an issue when we talk about repressed memories and whether they are real, but that is not the point of this post. Memory is our definition of our Self. It is our history. It is what we think makes us . . . well, us. To think that our memory might be incorrect is to think that we are not who we think we are. That is a big suggestion and one that many of us are not willing to accept, even if there is evidence “proving” us wrong.

This is where yoga can help. What is another perspective of memory? What if we look at it as a pattern? It is a story we tell ourselves, a story that is sometimes grounded in fact, sometimes grounded in other peoples’ stories about a fact, and sometimes factually incorrect on all accounts. Yoga, as we have seen before, helps us recognize our patterns for what they are. Patterns, like memories, are neither good nor bad. They are simply our patterns. Memories are neither necessarily factual nor false. They are simply our memories. And as memories, they help make us who we are.

And just as some patterns can lead to destructive behaviors over time, holding onto memories that may not be based in reality can be harmful. This does not mean that we need to start distrusting our every thought and our happy memories of childhood Thanksgivings spent with our family. But it is important to understand that they might be false, and that if someone has a different narrative of the same event, that their story might also be true. And yoga helps give us the ability to reflect. It gives us the tools for learning how to question our past, and recognize that what we remember is our own reality, but it may not be based in an external reality. The awareness of our bodies, our breath, and our mind, that come from yoga is the first step to seeing our memories as something that may be just a pattern.

Once we begin to recognize this in ourselves, we can use it as a path for empathy and compassion for others, but that is a topic to be explored in the next post.

How about you? Do you have any memories that you have since learned are false? Do you have any memories that are the result of family lore or a family photo? Are you willing to believe that what you believe may not be fact? Do you think it matters?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. self realization is a wonderful thing, when you can become your own teacher for the better of all those around you