Memory Distortions

“Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” Giorgos Seferis

Do you every doubt the reliability of your memories? Did that experience really happen to you or did you dream it? Or was it something someone told you? Or an event you read about it a book? In a beautiful and comprehensive essay on memorial errors in the latest New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks describes four general limitations on the accuracy of memories.

Unreliable memories are those we think we recall correctly but in fact never happened to us. In one of his books Sacks described how upset he was by two bombings near his home in London during World War II. While the area was in fact bombed, his brother reminded him he wasn’t in London then. Perhaps he read about it somewhere or someone told him about it and over time these cumulative reminders led him to believe he actually experienced it.

Constructive memories are those we make up from, say a photograph or story someone told us. We think our memory is real and we convince ourselves it is every time we repeat it or recall it. But in fact, the recollection is fictional, constructed out of other events or situations that did take place, but were never those you experienced.

Sacks illustrates this error with a tale Ronald Reagan often told about a wartime experience that never took place. Rather it was drawn from a scene in a 1944 film. Sacks says, “Reagan had apparently retained the facts, but forgotten their source.”

False memories are erroneous recollections that are the subject of much research in psychology and relevant to many legal cases where eyewitness testimony is called into question. Reports of childhood abuse and other traumatic events are often said to be pseudo-events.

Unconscious plagiarism is the most interesting of the four types of erroneous memories that Sacks describes. Variously called autoplagiarism, cryptomnesia, or unintentional plagiarism, occurs when a phrase, sentence or entire passage is experienced as an original idea. In fact, it is derived from an existing source, say one you read a long time ago or heard someone say or sing. Sacks gives several examples:

George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarizing a song by another composer for his own song, “My Sweet Lord.”

Helen Keller was accused of plagiarizing “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby in her own story “The Frost King” that she wrote when she was twelve.

The play, Molly Sweeney, by Brian Friel, contains entire phrases and sentences from Sacks own case history of a woman who was born blind. Her sight was much later restored after an operation, but she found her new visual world so confusing that she ends up returning to her original condition of blindness. When Sacks called this to the attention of Friel, he acknowledged that he had read the piece and subsequently agreed to add a note of his debt to Sacks for Molly Sweeney’s source.

Sacks suggests “literary borrowing” (“revisionist narrative”) was a common practice in the 17th Century, citing Coleridge, Shakespeare and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

Now I wonder how much of what I write is an unconscious revision of something another person wrote or that I recall correctly? I remember an experience that I had as a young boy. Was X actually there with me, or do I imagine she was? Did I actually say that, or have I made it up? In the end, there’s no way to be sure. You can live with false memories and they can affect you profoundly, even though they never happened.