My memory is worse than I realized

Recently I wrote an article for Hollywood in Toto that used a personal anecdote to demonstrate how unreliable memory can be. There I describe in awful detail a false memory I had created from David Fincher’s” Se7en.”

“Fincher did such a good job conveying the disturbing nature of the murders without showing much. This was especially true of the lust-based murder. Many people remember more about that scene then actually exists. All that is shown is the lead up to the room and then we are brought back to the police station. There the poor man who had been forced into the grotesque situation describes what happened. The combination of music, sound effects and excellent performances created the impression in many that they had seen something they simply had not.”

A reader interacted with me on Twitter about the scene in question. He was convinced there was more to the scene then I had described in my corrected account. And it turns out he was right. I had made the same mistake twice. The first one of course didn’t really matter. It was just a false recall about a film. Big deal. But while writing my article it never occurred to me that I might even then be remembering the scene wrong. So I did not double check. To be more precise I didn’t even check. This is the great sin of Journalism. Always check. Memory can’t be relied on for details. This realization made me feel deeply embarrassed until I realized that my mistake actually bolstered the original argument.

If the mistake had involved something really important, like reporting on a court case or historical research, I would’ve emailed Christian immediately so that we could update the article with a correction. But I came to the conclusion that I liked this outcome better. Because not only did it bolster my original point but by leaving it uncorrected I’ll always have a reminder of my own hubris. Unless of course I FORGET again. Which is why I’m writing this.

You can read my original false memory in the HIT article linked to above. Fair warning its pretty disgusting which is why I’m not including it here. And I quoted my second false recall above. The truth is that the scene actually does exist. The detectives played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman do enter the room where the homicide has taken place. But the prostitute’s body is obscured in the background and the man wearing the horrible “device” is covered in a blanket shaking horribly. The part that really freaks people out isn’t what they’re shown but rather that the man starts to repeatedly demand “Get this thing off me!”

Some theorists think that every single time we recall memories we are creating false ones. This seems highly probable. Our memories aren’t recorded in stone. Quite the opposite. They are invisible recreations of past perceptions. Little reenactments that our mind puts on. It’s all very mysterious. But its safe to say that nothing is indelible in anyone’s hippocampus. Memories aren’t physically encoded because they aren’t physical. They aren’t little colored balls on racks waiting for CGI Pixar characters to pick up and place on a projector. Our memories are highly dependent upon emotion. Not only the emotions at play in the past but our emotional state during recall.

And upon reflection I’m fairly certain that I’ve figured out what happened with my second false memory. The first false memory was caused by the disturbing emotional impact the scene had on me. I remembered more than there was. And the second false memory was caused in exactly the same way. But this time I was underwhelmed by what I saw in the film, instead of overwhelmed. Additionally I think I felt pretty embarrassed that I recalled the scene incorrectly. And this is what really generated the second false recall. My embarrassment was an overreaction and tricked me into thinking my original memory had been 100% incorrect. The truth is that my first false recall was actually much closer to what actually is in the film than the second false recall. The second one edited out the scene completely. That is much more inaccurate than simply misremembering a scene.

Imagine trying to piece together a historical event with only memories. No documents. No physical evidence. Detectives and investigators don’t have access to a Blu Ray the way I did. It’s hard to see how anyone could be certain of much in such a case. Which is what makes the presumption of innocence so important. But none of us has to imagine such a case. The whole world just witnessed this with Ford/Kavanaugh. It really is impossible to know what happened between them, if anything, all those years ago. And that’s where it should end. We can’t know. Lets leave it to the past and move on.

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Educator, podcaster, & writer

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A.C. Gleason

A.C. Gleason

Educator, podcaster, & writer

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