Thursday, August 05, 2010

You Have Forgotten

Consider your longer-standing resentments. Isn't part of the anger that the person who hurt you likely does not even remember the offense, or even, may not remember you? They hurt you and move on, and if we were to confront them with the data they might have no recollection. Or, they might consider it unimportant and you quite petty for holding onto it for so long. Perhaps worst of all, they might remember the event but with an entirely different spin, one that generally absolves them and accuses you.

First, remember that there are a hundred people out there who feel the same way about you. An offhand comment, a slight you have long forgotten, still animates them. And they will likely never tell you now. So for that reason alone, it is best to lose the resentment - you really don't want anything like a fully-remembering, fully-just world to descend upon you.

But there is a further reason to let loose your grip on these things. You remember them inaccurately. While it may seem vivid to you, the hurtful words seared into memory, they are in fact not seared. The more often you remember an event, the more you change it in light of later information. There is ample reason why this is psychologically good for you, allowing you to understand your world as a whole rather than a series of unrelated events, but it does deceive. It is not foolproof, and you may have for years trended in the direction of changing the events in memory .01% each time we remember. If we could magically retrieve a video someone took of the scene, we would find that the quote seared into memory is in fact approximate...that the conversation did not go in the order you remember...that there were other things said which you have forgotten, which might change the blame/credit balance.

How do we know this? Two things strongly point to it. When people describe remote, even innocuous events, not knowing there actually photos (or even a recording) of it remaining, they find their accuracy is not good. If we are not too strict, we usually find that people got the events approximately correct, not as if they made up whole sections of their history, but there are surprises. Try it yourself with a group watching old video sometime:
A: Why the heck was Aunt Daisy even at that party? She's from the other side of the family.
B: She was up visiting her sister, wasn't she?
C: Yes, her sister was in the hospital and we thought it would be a nice distraction.
D: I'd forgotten how short she was.
A: Well, you were only 12 when she died. Everyone looks tall when you're a child.

Secondly, we know that emotionally-charged events are especially poorly remembered, even a few days later. In particular, people leave things out and get them in the wrong order.

I write this as a person who is conscious of carrying very few resentments when I am in a good mood, but constantly find that stray comments or new versions of the old injury trigger anger. I want to replay the event and do better this time. Not better in the sense of being kinder and more adult, but better in the sense of being more effectively cutting and victorious.

It pays to remind myself that what I remember is almost assuredly deceiving to me, even if I have some of the events right.


Retriever said...

Very helpful post. The Rashomon syndrome. But it is also applicable to our memories and resentments about larger patterns of interaction. Think how often families fight at funerals or over deathbeds, so often over the sense that "she favored you"

(another) Jonathan said...

Well put. Not only are we mostly unaware of the harms we have caused to others, we generally don't remember well at all. This hit me when I visited, after many years away, the neighborhood where I grew up. It appeared to have changed greatly. But when I looked at old family photos of the same places I saw that in reality very little had changed. I assume that this corruption of memory is the norm but that we rarely have such well controlled occasions to compare our memories with more-objective records. We tend to think of the past as a place we can visit, when really it is more like some vague spot on the surface of a lake, receding into the distance and becoming gradually less distinct and accessible after we pass it in a boat.

James Ernest said...

AVI, you'd probably be interested in how some NT scholars are using memory research to try to solve some problems in historical-Jesus studies. Coming out this fall: We remember the general picture better than the details. Which, getting back to your post, may mean that we're right that X disliked us or whatever even if we're misremembering the details of one particular interaction. Also, are you sure the research shows we are worse at remembering emotionally charged events? I think I remember (!) reading that we're more likely to remember such moments accurately . . .

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My understanding is that we are more likely to remember emotionally-charged events, but change them more rapidly. Most of that data comes out of the research into recovered memory. But I'll check that as best I can. I'm sure my info is more than a decade old.