As a photographer, I “stop” time when I take a picture. The camera captures a moment in time that can then be studied and returned to any time I want. The very act of creating this image has given it an extra importance that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. It is now a permanent “memory” that allows me or anyone else viewing it to “remember” what I experienced. It is now a “Kodak moment” so to speak.
In a similar fashion, we create memories in our minds of the special moments in our lives. Usually, these are times accompanied by strong emotions – happy times, sad times, births, deaths, etc. Just like photographs, we “study” these snippets of sensory input and create stories to accompany them. But unlike photographic prints, these memories are more like digital images that we modify in Photoshop. These stories may start with a few facts, but often each time we “remember” a memory, we have the opportunity to “update” it, with new information or by forgetting some parts of the experience until it suits our “desired” story. We may embellish it to amplify the original emotions or “filter” it to be more consistent with our current beliefs.
For example, if we have decided that we had a hard childhood, we will tend to forget memories of happy times and embellish those that prove the paradigm we have chosen. Now, the memories will neatly align with the simple explanations we desire. We have our “evidence” for our grudges and our unforgiving attitude! Our ego and our “identity” is maintained and strengthened, but the truth may be very well hidden.
In fact, research has shown that people often make very poor witnesses because our brains have limited memory and we are forced to reduce the amount of memory required. By simplifying the raw data to fit into a natural pattern or sequence– a story– we make it much easier to “remember”. In scenarios with common elements and a regular pattern, this is a powerful heuristic and works very well. But in an unfamiliar situation with strangers, it might cause us to filter out the very data that is most significant later. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but we want to just summarize it in a few sentences!
If you want to experience how much of a “story teller” our minds are, just go to sleep! Our dreams are the creation of this “story telling” part of our brains when allowed to operate with reduced sensory input and a few random memories. During the dream, our logical mind is usually “asleep” and our dreams are unchallenged for realism, but when we awake, we find that many sequences made no “sense”. In fact, some believe that it is during our sleep that we “compact” our short term memories of the day into the long term memories that we retain. This is the perfect time for the “story” to be created, to simplify and summarize these experiences. Maybe this is what we remember as our dreams.
Now, I know many believe that dreams can be a connection with our spiritual guidance and give us symbolic messages. I don’t discount this possibility for some dreams, but certainly there are a lot of dreams that I don’t remember or that would seem to be devoid of any spiritual significance. I think those represent the more common task of long-term memory creation.
In this world of digital editing and special effects, we no longer simply accept what we see on the screen or in a photograph as necessarily being a truthful representation of reality. Maybe we should use a little of this same skepticism for our own memories. This is just one more reason to learn to forgive and forget – we may not have remembered what happened correctly anyway!