Do We Really Have Great Memories or Is it an illusion

photo of four girls wearing school uniform doing hand signs

Photo by 周 康 on

Have you ever travelled back in time upon meeting an old friend or encountering an old photograph or hearing a song you heard when you were a child.  Most of us go on a trip down memory lane when we encounter people, things even sounds and smell, prompting us to realize how quickly the time has passed by.  How a regular bus and cycle commute to school changed into a ride to college, and then all of it combining together to lead us to a place we now dread the most – office.

We probably don’t even know when we are making memories and when we are longing for them.  Most of the important events of our life remain imprinted in our memory and we can retrieve them with ease.  These memories are referred to as flashbulb memories and include events like childbirth, marriages or even accidents you witnessed or loss of life.

Well, this is what generally people believe to be true.  However, research in areas of memory especially memories of important events has shown conclusively that people don’t actually remember what they think they remember.  A study conducted on people who witnessed 9/11 attacks proved this counterintuitive finding.

Survey of more than 3000 people who claimed to remember with absolute clarity what they were doing or what they were talking about as they learned of the terrorist attacks proved this untenable thought.


Photo by anna on

The research conducted one week, a year and three years after the attack surveyed more than 3000 people from different American cities.  Consistency, a yardstick for accuracy dropped to 63% in just a year, which implies people deviated almost 37% from their original statements and it dropped further to 57% after three years.  Interestingly for these people the confidence they had in their recall remained greater than 4 on a scale of 5 throughout all these years.

There were variations too and some of the memory parts were more consistent than others, but when we look at the overall consistency, the recall was highly deviant.

Amygdala a small almond shaped bunch of neurons inside our brain is attributed to this deficiency in recall.  Amygdala is responsible for processing our emotions.  Memory, which is highly emotional in nature; tend to a have higher chance of faulty recall.  A memory vivid and factual in nature though can be recollected with better precision compared to an event, which is very high on emotional content.  Since, most of the people during the 9/11 attacks were affected emotionally a large part of that recollection turned out be faulty.  The memory of the planes crashing into the twin towers is etched permanently in our minds, however, events surrounding them like who you were with, or what you were doing, or where you were seemed to have lost their exactness.

What it means for us is that when we recall something from our memory and speak about it with absolute confidence we may not be necessarily 100% correct in our utterings.  So, it’s better to recall with a guarded statement like I just made, add an almost or close to cover up for any possible shortcomings.

But yes, don’t forget to ruminate about your school or college, that memory irrespective of whether it is 100% accurate or not, remains as precious as ever and is the only way for us to travel back in time and relieve the best years of our life.

There is one more thing I would like to add here.  People often feel they only remember the important event of their life, however, my personal experience has been we remember things we deem important as they occurred.

I still remember being offered to use the swing when I was in 5th standard, though I don’t have any other memory of that time with me.  Another memory which is not very significant but remained as sticky is of me walking with my parents to a temple (Shitla mata in Dehradun) when I was probably 5 or 6 and I don’t have an idea on how this particular memory remained stuck while I forgot everything else.

Does it have something to do with our emotions or is it because I thought it was an important event of my life during that time.  However, if that is the case, I should vividly remember my birthday’s but I hardly have a memory of even one (pre teenage years).

Memory seems like a tricky animal to leash.  However, I will be writing more on this in my upcoming blogs.

Do share your feedback.  Brickbats and bouquets are both welcome in equal measure.


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