Why Do Some Memories of the Past Contain Wrong Details?

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Reader’s Question

This inquiry is about the unusual phenomenon of remembering a slightly different history — discovering that detailed memories of certain events in history do not match actual recorded history. Nothing important or significant; just a few little differences between timelines, mainly when events happened.

The person in question is aged 57 and normally has excellent long-term memory, including vivid details of events during early childhood. However, his sister, 8 years older, remembers the same events happening during different years than he does.

What causes this condition, and how is it treated?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although you refer to this as an unusual phenomenon, it’s actually quite common and normal. It may not be brought to our attention, because oftentimes the personal memories we have are not shared by others, so we don’t have a comparison to make us question why their accounts might differ from ours. One exception is family members. It’s quite common for siblings to remember the same childhood events, yet differ in some of the details. If there isn’t someone else to consult as to what “really happened,” the siblings may never know who is most accurate.

The reason our autobiographical memories are not perfect reproductions of events is that our memory is not analogous to a video recorder. Instead, we experience events and, depending on the impact of those events, we may form memories, which ultimately involve biochemical processes in the brain. It’s still unclear how this process occurs, and it appears that different aspects of a particular memory may be stored in different parts of the brain. Recalling a memory involves bringing together all those different details, and that’s an imprecise process.

Subjectively, we often use the vividness of a memory as an indication of how accurate it is. In reality, vividness is influenced by the number of times we’ve recalled the memory, and the amount of attention we’ve given to the memory after the event. Each time we recall a memory, we tend to sharpen it a bit, and perhaps even unknowingly fill in little missing details. By the time we’ve described a favorite childhood memory several times, it’s liable to be very vivid, but actually may be less accurate than it was the first time it was recalled.

In the case you described, it sounds as though the most common discrepancy is when a remembered event occurred. This makes sense, given that autobiographical memories contain what we experienced, but not a time stamp. Usually we infer when something happened based on details from the memory (where we were living, what grade we were in at school, what happened before or after the remembered event, etc.). So, it’s quite possible to have a vivid recollection of the event, yet have attached an inaccurate designation as to where the event fits in time.

The important thing to remember is that autobiographical memory is far less perfect than recording by a mechanical device. For most of us, the degree of accuracy of our memories of past experiences is not that important. However, eyewitness testimony when trying to understand accidents and crimes also relies on autobiographical memory, with important consequences. Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases where such memories have proven inaccurate, despite being extremely vivid and based on traumatic events.

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