How our memory tricks us.


by Delfín Carbonell Basset

How is it possible that two persons recall differently an event that happened years ago? Often one person remembers something vividly, and the other doesn’t, and even doubts it ever happened. Why?  

We know that family members have different memories of past events. The same occurrence may be recalled in different manners by each member of the family to the point that it may not appear as the same episode.

I have come to ruminate about these things because of late I have had some experiences with hindsight and recalling things past which baffle and puzzle me.

In her VOXXI post “Three Kings: a great excuse to eat Roscón de Reyes.” (Jan 5, 2013) my daughter Laura recalls her childhood; and writing about the hidden prize or gift in the pastry called Roscón, says: “I must add that my family cheated a bit! We would discover that my dad’s good luck at finding the hidden prize over and over again was not such; he would stick his finger under the dough unbeknownst us, so when it was time to choose a slice he knew where the prize was hidden. Funny, yes, but disappointing!” Of course I do not remember it that way, at all. Was I really a cheat? Did I swipe the “prize” from my own children? Was I so childish? Do I have 10/20 “hindsight” memory?

My good friend Silvano Corrêa from Sao Paulo, reminiscing about our days as undergraduates at Duquesne University, says I had an affair with a girl named Penny. Unfortunately, I never had affairs with anyone –remember that I am a bookworm- especially with this Penny he keeps mentioning. But Silvano insists. Is he right? If so, why can’t I remember? Or is he wrong and his memory is playing tricks on him?

In his The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901, Sigmund Freud wrote: “…listen to two persons exchanging reminiscences concerning the same outward impressions, say of a journey that they have taken together sometime before. What remains most firmly in the memory of the one is often forgotten by the other, as if it had never occurred, even when there is not the slightest reason to assume that this impression is of greater psychic importance for the one than for the other. A great many of those factors which determine the selective power of memory are obviously still beyond our ken.”

Memory is selective and retains what strikes it firmly, while at the same time dismissing events that, for whatever reason, do not interest the intellect and thus are not retained. David Hume (1711-1776) called memory impressions and ideas in his A Treatise of Human Nature.

Read rest of this fabulous article at On Language and Culture

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