The Fallibility of Memories

There is nothing worse that the feeling of remembering something too late. Yesterday, I realized I’d forgotten completely about a meeting I had to attend. Luckily it was nothing earth-shatteringly important, but I find that forgetting important things brings up for me an unsettling truth: our minds are fallible. I rely on my brain daily to remind me to do simple things, like brushing my teeth, but also to do more important things, like attend meetings. Forgetting is rattling because it makes me question my brain and how much I should really trust it.

I think: Can I really trust you, brain? If I can’t trust you to remember simple things like a place and date, how can I expect you to log all of the important memories in life? How can I expect you to file away memories about my college years, my childhood, and everything else and keep them safe? Am I going to find them disarrayed, spread across the messy desk of my mind, spotted with coffee stains and crumbs?

Inside of brain with men running around

Is this my brain?

It is well known that the brain is fallible, that it colors our memories with thoughts of what we think should have happened, what we wish would have happened, and with details that are just plain inaccurate. It is one thing to abstractly know this but another to face it: how much of my life do I remember inaccurately? How many of my memories are actually real?

In today’s age of technology, I suppose we can outsource some of our brain’s tasks. We can relive old memories through Facebook statuses and messages. We can keep track of our schedules through iCal. But there is of course a lot which Facebook, iCal, and even offline mediums such as journals cannot capture. There is something to be said about the multi-sensory memories which we can only keep in our heads.

While things like dates and commitments are important to remember with accuracy, I think the important question becomes, “How important is it really to remember things as they were?” If I remember a particular event as bringing me more joy than it did, is there harm in that? Am I okay knowing that my memories can bring me joy more than my actual experiences?

I think I am, not only because it’s an unchangeable part of how our brains function, but because when I look back at my life, no one will be there to set the record straight. All I’ll have is my memories, and if they can bring me solace, make me laugh, or help me reflect, accuracy becomes irrelevant. Memories are not gateways to the past but bridges to our future. I’ve been lucky to build some good ones so far.


5 thoughts on “The Fallibility of Memories

  1. This is a very interesting take on memory. All of the things that happen to people can easily be selectively encoded, and I like your analogy of how we can remember events in the past vividly yet forget to attend an important meeting.

    And indeed, words and photos rarely give certain memories justice. I cannot, for example, fully express my experience on Birthright Israel with 1000 photos or 50 pages of journal entries.


  2. I wonder if the increase in availability of social media and electronic devices to store and remind us of important dates and meetings is what actually aids the lessening in retentive function of our brains. Just one of those chicken and egg things I guess but I agree with the importance of memories especially the good ones.


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