Don’t trust your memory

We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise

You can see the scene clearly in your mind, you can play it like a movie, but does your memory of the event give a true picture of what really happened? Probably not.

‘As they toiled towards land, Morgan, who was sitting with Goldie at the rear of the little boat, saw Searight at the front, next to the Indian passenger, and suddenly an unsettling memory came back to him.

We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise
photo credit: girl/afraid via photopin cc

‘I wonder why Searight wanted to kill him,’ he said.

‘What?’ Goldie said. ‘Whatever do you mean?’

He reminded Goldie of the incident, which had occurred nearly two weeks before, at Port Said. A strange story had gone around the ship: the Indian had reported his cabin-mate to the steward for wanting to throw him overboard, but then the two of them had made it up and became the best of friends again. Morgan hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but now it had returned to him, in the shape of this troubling question.

Goldie blinked in confusion. ‘Oh, but you’re mistaken,’ he said. ‘That wasn’t Searight.’


‘No, certainly not. It was Searight who told the story to me.’

Of course,’ Morgan said, suddenly very embarrassed. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’

It was a leap of logic to assume that Searight was sharing a cabin with the Indian; such an arrangement was unlikely. Morgan didn’t know how the idea had come to him. But afterwards, even when he knew it was untrue, he continued to be fascinated by what he’d imagined.

Damon Galgut. Arctic Summer.

Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.

Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us.

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