A Good Memory is Unpardonable

We met at nine, we met at eight, I was on time, no, you were late
Ah, yes, I remember it well
We dined with friends, we dined alone, a tenor sang, a baritone
Ah, yes, I remember it well
That dazzling April moon, there was none that night
And the month was June, that’s right, that’s right
It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do
Ah, yes, I remember it well
How often I’ve thought of that Friday, Monday night
When we had our last rendezvous
And somehow I foolishly wondered if you might
By some chance be thinking of it too?
That carriage ride, you walked me home
You lost a glove, aha, it was a comb
Ah, yes, I remember it well
That brilliant sky, we had some rain
Those Russian songs from sunny Spain
Ah, yes, I remember it well
You wore a gown of gold, I was all in blue
Am I getting old? Oh, no, not you
How strong you were, how young and gay
A prince of love in every way
Ah, yes, I remember it well
~Frederic Loewe, Gigi (1958)

Many people say that we are the sum of our experiences. What makes us who we are as individuals are all the myriad of joys, sorrows, traumas, and enjoyments to which we have been exposed through the years of our existence in the world. From this perspective, it seems that our personality and the core of who we are is more about the sum of our memories.

So, what happens when our memories start to fade? Do we lose who we are with the loss of each experience recorded? Is it possible to change the true being of a person merely by wiping the memory slate and giving them new memories, even newly created ones? Sounds like something out of a science fiction horror show, doesn’t it?

Lately, I’ve been giving the concept of memory and identity a lot of thought. In part, I believe it is because my own memory has been slipping a bit. Additionally, working with people who have varying types of dementia or other brain injury or illness that impacts cognition and recall has made me aware of the differences. I was watching a program on the Science channel recently that talked about memory being part of what makes us who we are. It made me think about personality changes that occur in people with dementia and fictional accounts of people with amnesia who create whole new lives for themselves. What about the ethical dilemmas of punishing someone for their past when they don’t remember it?

More interesting to me was also the social impact of memory. There have been studies that show that memory and recall are heavily influenced by the social impact of peer groups. The details of your own recall can be influenced and even overwritten by the approbation of your peers. It is true. People who were shown a picture of a little boy in a cowboy hat eating ice cream were more likely to get details wrong (for example saying that the boy was not wearing a hat) if they were informed that the majority of their peers answered with the wrong answer. What was even more astounding was that the information that was overwritten by peer pressure was enduring and later the same people got the answer wrong again even when not influenced by the fake social pressure.

So, um… why do we even care about this? Well, it means that details and facts in our memories may not be accurate. They may be just what someone else wants us to recall. Scary, right? It actually started me thinking about social interaction and popularity from the aspect of whether memory agrees with that of the peers around you.

Are people who succumb to the memory peer pressure seen as more agreeable and pleasant than those who might question the details recalled by their peer group? Think about it. So, everyone is talking about some event or occurrence and each witness to the event (as they say on all the cop shows) recalls things differently due to their individual perspective. Listening to the group reminisce, eventually all the stories start to drift towards agreement in detail. All tales resolve to the norm… and that norm is defined as what? That is probably set by the person with the most stock in the story or the highest charisma. Everyone else starts matching their impressions to that person. It is a human evolved characteristic that insured congruence in social groups and structure.

Now, what about the one person in the group who has eidetic memory? Yeah, it is rare, but for the purposes of this hypothetical, we’ll say there is one in every group. They listen to everyone and think, “That’s not what happened?” While everyone else in the group would swear that they recalled the same details as their peers, this one person knows that the details are not correct. Their memory isn’t being socially rewritten. This individual has a choice. They can sit quietly with their psychic dissonance, or they can contradict the group recall. Socially adept individuals will accept the psychic dissonance and let the group continue blithely on with their incorrect assumptions. However, if there is significant repercussions to the accuracy of the recall or if the dissonance is too uncomfortable, the individual will speak up and create a conflict of information. If they have enough charisma, people may accept their details or may even overwrite the incorrect memory encoding, but if not, the person becomes “that guy” or “that gal”. They may be seen as odd or even unpleasant, a troll. They may be ostracized for non-conformity with the consensus of their peer group.

Even in this age of relishing the non-conformist spirit, the truth is that most social groups do not want a nay-sayer. They like for everyone to get along and hold the same opinions. Contradiction breeds contempt and discord. Thus, having too accurate a memory, specifically one that disagrees with the majority, results in social distortion among peers. Perhaps this is the real reason the “nerds” were ostracized in school. Accurate recall is remarkably helpful for making excellent marks in school, but it tends to be awkward when the mean girls know you remember every incident of their rule infractions, remembered precisely when they said something less than erudite, or possibly even recalled a heinous wardrobe malfunction. No one likes being reminded of or knowing that people remember their mistakes or humiliations. The mirror of their imperfections is unlikely to garner affection or esteem.

It is possible that as more and more of our lives are captured digitally and immortalized on the internet that having accurate recall is less of a social blunder, but it is often wiser socially to observe Jane Austen and know that a good memory is unpardonable to the preservation of good rapport in amicable society.

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