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We Give Memory a Bad Name

July 1, 2011

Memory gets such a bad rap. It’s described as tricky, deceptive, failing, troublesome, inaccurate. We like to think of memory as something that can be “perfect” and then we define perfection in terms of something that memory could never, ever be. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a little like Photoshop in advertising … the perfect woman as defined in ads does not actually exist, nor can she. A healthy backlash against the practice gains more momentum every day. I’ve got my own backlash going against the definition of memory. If we think of a perfect memory as one immune to degeneration, distortion, and degradation, then the perfect memory does not exist. Because the perfect memory is distorted. If a memory changes, is added to and subtracted from over time until we know that what we’re remembering isn’t a blow-by-blow account of what happened, it is perfect. It’s as malleable as it’s supposed to be. Why, then, do we feel so distrustful of it? Why do we blame it for letting us down?

I’ve written about it before here. Now here’s more evidence of how memory works, and how we need to “completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory.” (Thanks, yellowfish, my friend of almost sixteen years, and my favorite neuroscientist, for the link!) A new study in The Journal of Consumer Research reveals that memories of experiences with products can be implanted in subjects. Though this article and the study that inspired it are new, the conclusions are not. For decades, scientists have been trying to convince us all that memory is a “ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information” and that “every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details.”

I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. “Punitive notions of disease have a long history, and such notions are particularly active with cancer. There is the ‘fight’ or ‘crusade’ against cancer; cancer is the ‘killer’ disease; people who have cancer are ‘cancer victims.’ … The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare … cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are ‘invasive.’ … Rarely are the body’s ‘defenses’ vigorous enough to obliterate a tumor that has established its own blood supply and consists of billions of destructive cells…” and so on. As it happens, when it comes to cancer, I tend to think along the lines of the metaphors Sontag wishes to undermine. It helps me align my emotional reaction to my scientific understanding of the disease when considering how unfortunate the person who gets cancer is as compared to the person who does not. But Sontag’s point is well taken; we find comfort in metaphorically describing something that is in fact working exactly as it’s supposed to work, whether cancer or memory. Cancer is the enemy. Memory is the trickster.

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