REMEMBERING AND RECORDING HISTORY: a “fool’s errand”?

Deepak Chopra says that our brain is constantly evolving.  While we lose “tens of thousands” of brain cells everyday, we are also constantly replacing them with more brain cells (Chopra). With such an adaptive brain, it is unsurprising that our memories would also be as adaptive.

Likewise, as our is brain constantly changing, our memories are ever changing.  How we recall a memory is influenced by our interpretations of events.  Our memories are also affected by how much time has passed since the original memory and event.  Further, even with the documentation of an event, we can never fully capture the event by way of photographs and written word.  Interpretation of an event is at the forefront of how we recall an event and  influences the details we choose to record.  As Robin Hobb, says,

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The more I studied the accounts of others, both written and told, the more it seemed to me that we attempt such histories not to preserve knowledge, but to fix the past in a settled way. Like a flower pressed flat and dried, we try to hold it still and say, this is exactly how it was the day I first saw it. But like the flower, the past cannot be trapped that way. It loses its fragrance and vitality, its fragility becomes brittleness and its colors fade. And when next you look on the flower, you know that it is not all what you sought to capture, that that moment has fled forever….[I] knew that, as it always would, the past had broken free of my effort to define and understand it. History is no more fixed and dead than the future. The past is no further away than the last breath you took. ~Robin Hobb – Fool’s Errand  [Photo by Gage Skidmor]

The past is open to interpretation and it is based on the vantage point that a person holds. Sometimes we can see ourselves in an event from an observer point-of-view, while at other times we view an event from our original visual perspective (i.e. reliving an event through our own eyes).  We often view older emotional memories from an observer-point-of view.  When we recall memories from an observer-point-of view, our emotional reaction to the memory is reduced, as we are acting as observers of ourselves in the memory, rather than visually reliving the visual memory in first-person. For example, the recall of traumatic events from the observer point-of-view stops a person from reliving the emotion attached to the trauma  (Hyman, 2013).  Conversely, the vividness and richness of a memory is muted in the observer point-of-view as the emotions  are also muted.  A first-person visual memory will include emotions, thus producing  a number of stronger and more intense images of recall (Finnbogadóttir, Hildur,Berntsen, Dorthe, 2014).  Regardless, of the point-of-view used, recall of events are influenced by the way in which we recall them and the emotions attached to the event remembered.  Further, we are subjected to a fading memory.

Over time, our memories fade, which renders our recall of an event incomplete.   For example, eyewitnesses in trials frequently have flaws in their recall of events, especially if some time has passed.  Neuroscientists have discovered that when we recall a memory, we reconstruct the event from trace memories. Further, we tend to suppress memories that have had a negative impact on us.  In essence, our brain adapts the memories based on individual circumstances (Eisold, 2012).  We  unconsciously fill in the blanks with information that makes the most sense, based on our own knowledge base and experiences.  The documentation of events also provides an incomplete picture.

All of the details of an event can not be captured in full, by way of pictures and written word, as we are limited by the number of details we decide to focus on.   We have a tendency to look for evidence that supports our own beliefs and discount evidence that does not (Hall, 2012).  Through our decisions on what to focus on, we ignore other pieces of information, which forms an incomplete picture.  Therefore, our perceived reality is based on what what we choose to focus on (Goldhill, 2017).  We can take a picture of an object we deem to be important, while other objects remain on the margins and thus are not included in the event being photographed.  We can write about an event, but what we choose to highlight, will overshadow anything that we think is unimportant.  Then, is recalling and recording an event a futile endeavour?

Even though memories and documentation miss information about historical events, this does not mean that recalling and recording events is not worthwhile.  After all, we acquire and assign meaning to events when we recall and record events.  However, having an awareness and  understanding that our memories are dynamic and subjective, may help us to be flexible in how we have viewed past events.  In turn, we can understand how there may be multiple versions of the same event, based on how a person or group viewed the same event which was based on what they decided to focus on.  We might just realise that we did not have all of the information about a circumstance or event, and maybe, how we remember a past event may shift.

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