Updated: Aug 25
How many times in my life have I used that phrase? Far too many to even venture a guess. And how many times was I right when I said it? Far fewer than I could have ever imagined.
Malcomb Gladwell has a great podcast called Revisionist History. One episode from a few years ago is called, Free Brian Williams. In it, Gladwell discusses how our memory handles “flashbulb moments” such as 9/11. Most people I mention this to are quick to tell me just how well they remember where they were and what they were doing that morning. Like them, my memories of that morning are crystal clear. But are they really, or did my brain add or change a few details? Impossible, right? Not according to research.
In his podcast, Gladwell shares data from a research project that was launched shortly after September 11th involving 3,246 participants. They were asked three questions:
“Where were you on 9/11?”
“Who were you with?”
“How did you feel?”
They were asked to answer the same questions again one year, two years. and ten years later. Everyone was clear about where they were when they learned of the attacks. The respondent’s confidence in their answer was extremely high, however, 60% of the answers changed over time, yet their confidence never waned. How could they all be so certain year after year, and be so wrong?
In a similar study following the Challenger explosion in 1986, people remained confident in their revised memory, even after being shown their own handwritten answers in previous surveys; “I’m not sure why I wrote that because it isn’t true.”
Gladwell sums it up by saying, “[…] only a fool accepts the evidence of his own memory as gospel. […] We're all fools.”
If more than half of what we remember from such a traumatic event as 9/11 is questionable, what does that say about the other things we have always assumed as true?
I saw this firsthand as I was writing my memoir. I would write a story about one of my life’s experiences, based on my memory of how things happened. Then I would look to find meaning in that story about how that event shaped my life. On more than one occasion, I would find myself trying to connect the dots, but they just wouldn’t fit until I went back and took a closer look at the story itself. It is surprising to me how many times I was wrong about verifiable data such as dates, places, etc. Once I got the story right, or at least as correct as I could, suddenly all the dots fell into place for me.
There is a mountain of evidence on just how fallible our memories are, yet all too often we act as if they are foolproof. The problem is that so much of our opinions and beliefs are shaped by our memories and the memories that others share with us. We frequently cannot tell the difference between what is a fact and what is a belief. Look at religion. Most of my life I would have identified as Christian. Admittedly, I am no expert on theology, but what I “remember” learning is that many of the stories have been passed down from generation to generation. Could there have been a mistake somewhere along the line?
I imagine that most Christians would say that it is a fact that Jesus was the son of God. Other religious traditions would argue that is not true. An atheist would deny there is even a God, a “fact” that most religions I know of would dispute. So, what’s the truth? The question is, of course, rhetorical. I would get a different answer from everyone.
My point is not to argue for or against any religious belief. Today, I am neither a religious person nor an atheist. Based on what I can observe from the world around me, I know that there are things in the universe that cannot be explained by science alone. It is possible that those mysteries will only be explained by the hand of a divine being, or science will someday provide the answers. My heart says, in other words my opinion is, that the truth will fall somewhere in the middle. It usually does.
I think the question we should ask ourselves is, if our memories and those of the people who have influenced our beliefs are potentially flawed, does that say anything about the opinions and beliefs we share so openly with the world around us? Is it possible they are flawed as well? That seems a logical conclusion to me.
We tend to speak in absolutes. Rarely do we offer a disclaimer on the information we share. I have been equally guilty of that in this post as well as others so, let me offer the following disclaimer:
Anything the author says about the past is a work of creative nonfiction. The author has made every attempt to accurately portray the information in this post to the best of his memory. Any opinion shared in this, or any other blog post, book, telephone call, email, or any other form of written or verbal conversation is heavily influenced by the author’s memory of his life experiences which are completely unpredictable and wrong more times than not. The author will make every attempt to tell you whether or not the information he is sharing is a belief or a fact, however, he may not know the answer to that question himself, so even if he does tell you it is fact, he may be wrong. You should not base any judgements you make solely on what the author communicates. You should evaluate the validity based on your own research. You can also base any conclusions you reach solely on your beliefs if you don’t care about the truth and just want to believe what you believe.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge.” - Steven Hawking