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All about my mother
Quick Links. Choose a page from the menu below. To know who you are as a person, you need to have some idea of who you have been. And, for better or worse, your remembered life story is a pretty good guide to what you will do tomorrow. It's no surprise, then, that there is fascination with this quintessentially human ability. When I cast back to an event from my past — let's say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea — I don't just conjure up dates and times and places what psychologists call "semantic memory".
I do much more than that.
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I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of "now" intervene. This is quite a trick, psychologically speaking, and it has made cognitive scientists determined to find out how it is done. The sort of memory I have described is known as "autobiographical memory", because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings of our own lives. It is distinguished from semantic memory, which is memory for facts, and other kinds of implicit long-term memory, such as your memory for complex actions such as riding a bike or playing a saxophone.
When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past.
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Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else's viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now.
Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like. We know this from many different sources of evidence. Psychologists have conducted studies on eyewitness testimony, for example, showing how easy it is to change someone's memories by asking misleading questions.
These recollections can often be very vivid, as in the case of a study by Kim Wade at the University of Warwick. She colluded with the parents of her student participants to get photos from the undergraduates' childhoods, and to ascertain whether certain events, such as a ride in a hot-air balloon, had ever happened. She then doctored some of the images to show the participant's childhood face in one of these never-experienced contexts, such as the basket of a hot-air balloon in flight. In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn't guarantee that it really happened.
Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke.
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When followed up three years later, almost half of the testimonies had changed in at least one key detail. For example, people would remember hearing the news from the TV, when actually they initially told the researchers that they had heard it through word of mouth. What accounts for this unreliability? One factor must be that remembering is always re-remembering. Like a game of Chinese whispers, any small error is likely to be propagated along the chain of remembering. The sensory impressions that I took from the event are likely to be stored quite accurately.
When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present.
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The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light. One of the most interesting writers on memory, Virginia Woolf, shows this process in action. In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, she tells us that one of her earliest memories is of the pattern of flowers on her mother's dress, seen close-up as she rested on her lap during a train journey to St Ives.
She initially links the memory to the outward journey to Cornwall, noting that it is convenient to do so because it points to what was actually her earliest memory: lying in bed in her St Ives nursery listening to the sound of the sea.
But Woolf also acknowledges an inconvenient fact. The quality of the light in the carriage suggests that it is evening, making it more likely that the event happened on the journey back from St Ives to London. How many more of our memories are a story to suit the self? There can be no doubt that our current emotions and beliefs shape the memories that we create. It is hard to remember the political beliefs of our pasts, for example, when so much has changed in the world and in ourselves.
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How many of us can accurately recall the euphoria at Tony Blair's election in ? When our present-day emotions change, so do our memories. Of all the memories we cherish, those from childhood are possibly the most special. Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism.
When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right. Many factors seem to be critical in children's emergence from childhood amnesia, including language and narrative abilities.