As we all know by now, there is a website for everything. I’m talking websites about businesses, hobbies, illnesses, medicines, vitamins, addictions, dogs, cats, fat, vacations, search engines, scams and, yes, websites, just to name a few. There is even one on memory loss, but, if you are like me, you’d better write it down if you want to find it again.
As a writer entering the age of forgetfulness, I am thankful for the internet, because sometimes the word I want doesn’t immediately pop into my head upon demand as it once did. Why, just the other day, I couldn’t, for the life of me, come up with the popular brand name for acetominophen, which is, of course, Tylenol. Why would I remember a word that isn’t even in my spell-checker and not one of our most well-known over-the-counter pain medications? That’s just the way memory is. Why do I remember 60-year-old commercial jingles and the 12 points of the Scout Law (trustworthy, loyal helpful, friendly…) and I still can’t recall some of the streets of Wyalusing— and there aren’t that many— despite living here for almost 40 years? That’s the way memory works and doesn’t work.
Memory also has a self-editing feature, especially as you stumble from middle to old age. This is known as false memory, because we tend to remember some things the way we want to remember them and not the way they really happened. That’s why eyewitnesses are not always so reliable in criminal cases. False memories may be planted, with children the most vulnerable, because adults or peers may convince them that they saw or experienced something dramatic or traumatic. There are numerous cases where children will not only report something that never happened, convinced that it did, even adding details that might even fool an experienced psychologist. There are cases where groups of children remember the same thing, even though it never happened, and this is a shared false memory that might ruin the career and reputation of a teacher, for example, or a day care professional.
Many false memories are trivial. It may be an error of omission or just an amended version of reality. For example, I was basically an underachieving B student in high school, with occasional A’s and C’s balancing each other out. My wife found a report card the other day from either my junior or senior year in which there was an F in Social Studies, I believe, for one marking period. Yet, if you put me on the witness stand, after swearing on a Bible, and asked me if I ever had a failing grade on a report card, I would have confidently replied, “No way!” Even seeing it there emboldened in black on that yellowed paper, I could not recall receiving that grade. Knowing my mother would have instituted some punishment amid tears of disappointment, it amazes me that F had disappeared from my memory. I told my wife to toss the report card, because it was much better not remembering, even though it is now something I won’t be able to forget.
Memory is flawed, I learned, and should not be regarded as a literal record.
I’d guess we all know somebody who seems to thrive on false memories, because they don’t remember things the way everyone else does. This may be the behavior of a pathological liar changing his own history to make himself look smarter, heroic or more accomplished. Some, however, are sharing false memories, unaware of the falsehood, convinced that they are true.
Most memories are not made up, but memory loss is common. Time is a thief, stealing them away from us, but, in the case of my F, was that memory loss or an omission attributed to false memory? All I know is that memory isn’t there anymore, and it is something I definitely would have wanted to forget.
Most false memories are revisions of what really happened, inserting incorrect details, even entire story lines.
False memory is also a disorder known as confabulation. Dr. John DeLuca, a neuropsychologist, says this disorder produces false memories that range for “subtle alternations to bizarre fabrications.” One of the causes he has diagnosed is the rupture of a blood vessel in the brain. Confabulation is also defined as a conversation, a dialogue or the sharing of information.
It seems everything that used to be regarded as amoral, sinful or at least a character flaw has become a disorder. So it is with lying, and we have become a nation of liars. I think we have to decide how important truthfulness is in a democracy. Are we going to demand truth from our elected leaders as they emerge from their back-room confabulations, sparring with contrasting stories of what happened there?
Will we ever know the truth when government is conducted this way? Can we make sound, fair and humane decisions when the truth is expendable?
We can write all the lying off as false memories triggered by ruptured blood vessels or we can begin by holding the liars accountable.