Saturday, April 09, 2016

Memory, Simplification and Lies

I realized recently that by the standards of some people who insist that all simplification is a lie that I am a gross fraud and liar.

After all, I have said many times that my wife and I buried three children in a five year span.  That is a lie.  It was really four and a half years.  That isn't even true.  It was from January 26, 1993 to August 31, 1997. Which isn't accurate. It was late at night on the 26th, early in the morning on the 31st.

Which isn't even accurate, since the funerals followed the deaths and I don't really have strong memories of when the funerals were by date.  Except by the time Robin died, we didn't have a funeral, we just had a grave-side service, we couldn't take a funeral.

And though I've been asked to write on the topic, I've not included all the details.  Like what it felt to attempt CPR on someone too dead for it to have any effect.  Or the autopsy they did on Robin that was so botched a police officer launched a desecration of a human corpse investigation.


I obviously disagree that all simplification is a lie.  Sometimes we simplify because the details are not ones that add to the discussion.  Sometimes because the message is enough from the simplification. Sometimes because the details are enough.


And when we get to memory, memory is about lessons learned, rather than facts, and for most people it is a matter of labels rather than pictures (all the more for me since I lack visual memory for the most part).
  • Every time you use a memory, it changes.
    • Turns out your memory is a lot like the telephone game, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study. Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. 
    • The Northwestern study is the first to show this. “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event -- it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the paper on the study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.” 
  • Memories are edited every time we share them.
    • One implication of Schiller’s work is that memory isn’t like a file in our brain but more like a story that is edited every time we tell it. To each re-telling there are attached emotional details. 
    • So when the story is altered feelings are also reshaped. Schiller says, “My conclusion is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings. Your memory is who you are now.” So if we tell our stories differently, the emotions that are elicited will also differ. An altered story is also an altered interior life.
  • Memories are physical as well as mental.

A simplified memory may be more accurate, especially if it is a label used to avoid recalling and editing the detailed memory in order to preserve that memory unaltered.

Or a simplified story might be as much as an audience really has time or energy to hear -- or more importantly, since memory is the lesson learned and not the fact -- it may capture the lesson better than other things would.

But it is not necessarily a lie to simplify a story or to limit the details shared about it.

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