Memory and Confabulation

by: hawkgrrrl

November 16, 2010

When I was about 3 or 4 years old, my family was in a boating accident.  The sky was blue with small fluffy clouds.  It was a warm, peaceful day.  We were in a row boat, and our dog Pepper was in the boat with us.  I remember sitting in the boat, enjoying the warm day.  Then I remember a brief glimpse of being in the water and a lot of confusion.  Then I remember sitting on the grassy bank watching our capsized boat floating away along with our things that had been in the boat (packages of garments my parents had bought, I think).  I vividly remember sitting on the grass thinking, “I’m OK.  Nothing can hurt me.  Things just always work out for me.

A few years ago, I was talking about this family memory with my sister who is seven years older than me.  She said she remembered being panicked and soaking wet, and when she got back to shore, she was shivering and freezing cold.  She said she remembers thinking, “Life is so unfair.  Why do bad things always happen to me?”  I told her my memory, and she quickly denied that was what happened.  She said, “You were screaming your head off.  You weren’t calm at all.”

I thought it was interesting how different this experience had been for me at 3 or 4 years old vs. my sister at 10 or 11 years old.  Certainly, it seemed plausible that I might feel more protected.  Family members probably rallied to save me, whereas maybe she was expected to be more self-sufficient.  I decided to tell my mother about how differently the two of us remembered that incident and how odd memory could be.  Her reaction completely floored me.  My mother said, slowly and chillingly, “Your sister wasn’t even there.” 

So what is true?  Is the truth even knowable at this point?  What emerged from this incident for each of us was a narrative, one that matches other narratives we have about our lives, our situations, and even ourselves.  Studies have shown that memory is extremely unreliable for several key reasons:

  1. Our initial accounts are missing data.  As you can tell from my memory of the boating accident, my memory is more like a series of snapshots than a movie.  There are gaps in what I can remember.  How did the accident happen?  How long was I in the water?  Who was there?  How did I get out of the water?  The stakes were high; this was a life or death situation.  I could have easily drowned that day.  So, why is such an important memory not burned clearly into my mind?  Eyewitnesses are actually very unreliable.  Some colleges perform an experiment in which, midway through the lecture, an intruder enters the room and commits a crime in front of the auditorium of students.  Later interviews with students reveal that the most accurate eyewitnesses only get 80% of relevant details correct.  Many only get between 20 and 25% of details correct.
  2. We fill in the gaps of memory to give our narratives continuity.  This is called “confabulation” or, in layman’s terms, making stuff up.  We get better at this the longer we live.  Truth be told, most of our memories, if examined closely, are made of “snapshots” with confabulation to fill in the gaps.
  3. We ignore what doesn’t jibe with our beliefs.  This is also called confirmation bias, and it’s one reason that eyewitness accounts can be unreliable.  Consider a memory of a failed relationship.  Suddenly, things you ignored or didn’t think were important come to the forefront with your knowledge that the relationship didn’t work out.  With the benefit of hindsight, you now see signs that it wasn’t going to work out.  Spouses whose partners cheated suddenly remember details that were out of step with their belief that everything was going well.
  4. We overwrite our memories to make them conform with our current views.  An interesting study was done over the course of a decade.  In 1974, a group of people who had strong political convictions were interviewed about their political views. Ten years later, the same people were interviewed about their political views, including questions about how they had viewed things ten years earlier.  As their views had shifted, radically in some cases, so did their memory of what their views had been ten years earlier.  They actually remembered things differently based on their changed ideologies, and they were no longer capable of believing that they had really believed those opposing views.

Knowing that these things are true of memory, what does that imply for:

  • history (including church history)
  • scripture (the earliest NT writings are from 40 years after Christ’s death, for example)
  • testimonies (often including faith promoting memories)
  • conversion stories (ours or others’, even those recorded in scripture)
  • family stories (stories that are supposed to reveal the family’s virtues or common characteristics, usually)
  • personal memories (even the things we consider to be facts based on our own memories)

Does this give you pause?

And yet, personal narrative is integral to Mormonism.  We get up monthly to share personal stories that confirm our beliefs in God, the church and in the LDS worldview.  Understanding how memory works doesn’t necessarily make these stories irrelevant, just relevant in a different way.  They reduce the value of testimony as “proof” or “evidence” (at least by adding a lot of qualifiers), but they do spin it as personal narrative about us as individuals, our beliefs, our wishes and desires, and our spiritual quest at a given time.  IOW, testimony, even faith affirming stories, always reveal our current views more accurately than they capture what actually happened.  As you consider the changes to JS’s retelling of the first vision, this explanation illustrates why the narrative and conclusions were also subject to change over time.  In a very real sense, we don’t understand what happened until we have the benefit of hindsight and can see it more clearly.  And by then we still don’t understand what actually happened, only what we believe it means.


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11 Responses to Memory and Confabulation

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 16, 2010 at 4:47 AM

    This reminds me of many of the attacks on eye witness testimony I’ve read over the years. Yet, sometimes we don’t have much else.

    Who was at fault in an automobile accident, who asked you out for a date, what does your spouse look like?

    But your post does say things about narratives that I often try to get people to accept. Thank you.

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  2. Mike S on November 16, 2010 at 7:20 AM

    This is common in all aspects of life. Even in something as important as succession after Joseph Smith, this occurs. There is a great article on this in Dialogue.

    As taught by Orson Hyde when talking about Brigham Young and the events of the day that lead to him taking over the church: “When Young began to speak that morning, Quorum of the Twelve president Hyde recalled in 1869, “his words went through me like
    electricity.” This is my testimony, Hyde added for special emphasis, “it
    was not only the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures
    and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.”

    Unfortunately for this account, as supportive as it is for succession in the Church presidency, Orson Hyde wasn’t even there when the meeting took place. He came the next week. So even apostles have “faulty recollections”.

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  3. John Swenson Harvey on November 16, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    I had a professor in college who advocated that one write down details of any important event (accident, personal experience, etc.) *immediately* after it happened. While this would not overcome the problem of missing data, it does stop the problem of memory creep. It is also why in criminal cases having a lot of circumstantial evidence (as opposed to just eye witnesses) is actually a good thing.

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  4. Jared on November 16, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    Good point. This may be the reason the scripture teach that “the Holy Ghost…shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. John 14:26

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  5. Thomas on November 16, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    This reminds me of a story that Francis Bacon (I think) had just sat down to write the definitive History of the World, when he was disturbed by a fracas in the street outside his house. When he went out to find out what had happened, he got six different accounts of how the fight had started.

    He promptly gave up the history project.

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  6. GBSmith on November 16, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    I wonder if Paul Dunn deserved all the grief he go from his stories. He told them so many times they likely morphed into what at the end was far from the truth but at the same time I doubt it was his intent to lie or mislead.

    In another example of what you’re talking about a missionary friend of my wife told an inspiring story at a fireside and as a result her future husband who was there became enraptured with her, justifiably so, and they were later married. The problem was that she only realized later that it was my wife that was there in the story and not her.

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  7. Glenn on November 16, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    Many years ago I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Loftus speak on the Indiana University campus — it changed my life. She talked all about the creation of false memories — I’ll provide a link for those who want to read more — but it sent my mind on a path similar to the questions Hawk posed above. Where it ultimately led me is to a greater place of “humility” (if I can dare call myself “humble” in any sense of the word) — at least less certain, less convicted, more willing to accept the very real possibility that I could be wrong about even my most treasured vivid realistic memories. Great post Hawk!

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  8. dog lover on November 16, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Re: #6

    I also believe memories can be faulty, but making up stories about playing major league baseball and some of the whoppers he told. If he really believed the stories he told he might have had a mental illness. Although I do remember him coming to mutual and listening to him speak and I thought he was amazing and that I felt the spirit so strongly. When I found out that his stories were fictional I was devastated and felt like I had been played.

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  9. Joe on November 16, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    False memories are fascinating. One thing I realized many years ago is that family stories that are told and retold tend to take on a life of their own. I’ve also learned that many memories aren’t memories of the events, but of photographs, videos or other people’s stories of the events. I’ve had that happen several times.

    One of my earliest memories is when I was two or three, it was fall, new house and I refused to put on a jacket when my brother and I played on a new jungle gym. I have a picture of us on that jungle gym. Yet I have no memory of that. I do wonder though, if what I mainly remember is my mother telling me story of how I argued before that picture was taken overlaid on a snippet of real memory, but what’s the real part and what’s the fill-in-the-blank part?

    In a related vein, I’ve learned that I have a very good memory if I have something very physical associated with that memory, otherwise I struggle. Remembering math equations is really hard, but I can remember several events from my life like they happened yesterday. (Now, to make it even more weird, there was an event from my mission that I’ve related and started wondering if I was exaggerating. By chance I recently stumbled across my old missionary journal and some letters, which I thought had been lost. To my surprise, the event as recorded that very day was even worse than I remembered! It was also clear that my mission president was being a jerk, but I didn’t remember it that way!)

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  10. hawkgrrrl on November 18, 2010 at 2:10 PM

    Joe – I too have had that experience of confabulating a memory based on a photo or a 3rd hand account and yet, those “memories” are just as clear to me as actual events sometimes. It’s funny how the mind works!

    I have also (like perhaps the First Vision accounts) retold a memory with a very different interpretation including remembering and emphasizing different details at different times. And in essence, all those versions are a version of the truth. They are a facet of the same thing.

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  11. hawkgrrrl on November 18, 2010 at 2:15 PM

    Too quick on the trigger there! One more thought I had was around the statement that a testimony is found in the bearing of it. I wonder if this is the same sort of process. The mind fills in the gaps and confabulates the narrative to support the snapshots. So even if you start bearing a testimony in doubt your mind fills in the gaps that suspend that disbelief. Likewise, a witness on a stand who sees the defendant becomes more and more certain the more the testimony is repeated while looking at the accused.

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