Rather than a filing cabinet in the mind, it turns out memory is an exquisite illusion that shapes our sense of self. Here’s how to understand yours better
WHEN considering what makes us who we are, it is easy to think our memories are the answer. Aside from the physical traces of the passing of time on your body, your recollections are perhaps the only thing that links the you sitting here today to the many yous from every previous day of your existence. Without them, your relationships would mean nothing, not to mention your knowledge, tastes, and your many adventures. It might be no exaggeration to say your memories are the essence of you.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that much of the burgeoning field of neuroscience has turned its efforts to understanding what makes a memory and how to keep hold of it.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea to come from recent discoveries is a reimagining of the dark side of memory – forgetting.
As cherished memories fade or when we fail to remember an important task it is easy to feel that memory is failing us. But what the latest findings show is that simply thinking of memory as either accurate or fallible is a mistake. Instead, our memories are malleable, and for good reason.
Rather than existing in the filing cabinet of the brain, we conjure memories from scratch with our own style (see “How can two people recall an event so differently?”). As we sleep, the brain meticulously crafts them into the most useful versions (see “What happens to your memories while you sleep?”). Technology too, affects how we remember and might even create whole new recollections (see “Is technology making your memory worse?”). As for forgetting, as infuriating as it can be, we’d be lost without it. Because memory, it turns out, is an illusion – one we create every time we recall the past and that is exquisitely designed to help you live your life.
This article appeared in print under the headline “How to make sense of your memory”