Opinion

Why we never remember things correctly

By Harriet Piercy

Updated Sep 28, 2020 at 02:32 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Why do our visualisations of concepts and places grow, shrink or warp depending on our understanding of something? From diagrams and maps to spatial awareness and emotion, there is one thing that links and distorts them all: expectation.

Time is not as linear as we think. Memory, emotion and the curiosity of thoughts can warp it beyond recognition. When processing time psychologically, space and time are often thought of as static dimensions that can be measured by instruments such as clocks or rulers. However, our subjective experiences, depending on what stimuli are present, allow space and time to be malleable.

For example, think of the street you live on, which you presumably see every day. Visualise the entrance to the building of the house opposite yours, now look outside your window. Was it how you imagined? Get a piece of paper and draw the map of what is around you without looking at a published map. When you’re done, list the landmarks that you have drawn, then, take out the published map and compare the two while making mental notes of differences in size, name—anything. Go back to your list, and mull over reasons as to why those places stand out. What happened there to make them do so?

Even after we have learned the truth of a misconception, in this case by comparing our two maps, our errors tend to persist. Our experience within our world defies much of the logic required to make accurate decisions. I will go more into this later, but geographer Anthony Robinson of Penn State University told the National Geographic that he thinks “it must have something to do with both the limits of our observable perception of space and time, and the fact that we are disrupting that constantly with technology and methods of transportation and things that compress those things and make them nonfactors.”

When I was a child, I lived with my parents for a few months in a tent that I thought was the size of a castle by day. We were panning for gold (which in mining terms, is to separate particles of greater gravity from soil or gravel by washing it all in a pan with water) along the Zambezi River. The tent’s zip didn’t work. Through the gaping door, the night was especially large around my fortress, and it was ferociously flapping its way in with the wind.

Years later, I stood the same tent up. It was not only spattered with tiny holes, but boxlike. The zip was still broken and its entrance now flapping in a different, duller breeze, bared the thought of a child peering out. I was confronted with the truth of a misconception, the tent’s size was logically deemed to feel bigger for a smaller human, but now with the tent packed back up again and miles away, the castle in its enormity remains vividly more truthful.

What we choose to contain in our memories passes through what could be seen as our own organisational web, practiced paths to positive or negative memories we habitually go back to, grow. We go back to them because of a yearning to either rationalise actions or to pick apart words—and we tend to go back to what we do not understand. Subconsciously, our minds will create schemas (patterns of repeated behaviour in order to find meaning) that enable us to fabricate ideals that facilitate the memory into being more understandable, even if defying logic.

These inaccurate decisions help us feel less afraid of the memory we, prior to our fabrications, didn’t understand. The need to do this could go as far as to affect our survival, or our want to survive. Similarly to how we connect with escapism, as we age, an aspect of what is ingrained in us as children becomes a coping mechanism—but one we seem to be at war with. Escapism introduced us to the imagination. By not seeing or seeing what is not allowed us to reason with concepts we were uncomfortable with.

To go back to my castle, I was living a life that never stood still, not just physically. Roots were laid, then dug up, laid, then dug up, laid, dug up again, until they did not seem to grow anymore. What could be more secure against the darkness, sturdy against the wind and heavy enough to never be moved, than a castle? So this is what my memory had built.

The experience we have with what happens around us moves at different speeds too, the now blinks past, but a striking conversation from five minutes ago could take years to pass. We also stretch the absence of content more than content itself, such as what we wish we could have said or done over what we did. There are certain triggers that morph memory and time, one of those things is music—an escapism that fills the time, or empties and numbs it. One that connects us with memory, or acts as a canvas for our fabrications.

Daniel Levitin recalled the first memory he has of listening to music in his book The Brain on Music. His mother was playing the piano, he remembers being transported to sensory places he had never been, “Time seemed to stand still while the music was playing.” He questioned this realisation, how does expectation lead to experience of emotion in music? How do we recognise songs we have never heard before?

Levitin says that a song compromises a very specific and vivid set of memory cues. The cues assume a context that is encoded along the course of your life, but cross-coded with varying events at each moment the song is played. The music becomes linked to time, and events are linked to music. The more context a particular cue or sound is associated with, the less effective it will be at surfacing a memory. He goes as far as saying that memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music. Music works because we remember the tones we have just heard and relate them to the ones being played.

Decisions we make daily are triggered by deeply rooted memories, experiences live on. We expect them to. The importance of memory is to not allow expectation to delude our understanding by our mental meddling in order to understand. Confront the truth, but if a tent grows into a castle in order to reason or survive, I think that is ok too. 

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