The Fragility of Memory: Can You Really Trust Your Mind?


The Idea

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At some point in our lives we will experience a longing, a yearning for times past, a time when we were different people, did different things, felt differently. We cherish those memories of silly things we did or a mental state we were in or even that time we saw something outrageous or funny. Losing ourselves in the intricacies of our mind, caught between memory and nostalgia, we hang there clinging to hope.

Our memories are difficult to validate or authenticate; over the course of the 20th Century, scientists have studied the brain and memory in as many different ways as there are scientists. Ultimately, a consensus was reached that memory is malleable; it is fragile and subject to manipulation, most importantly it is unreliable. Yet we cling to our memories in hopes of making sense of the world and more accurately, who we are; for memory is closely intertwined with identity. We are the accumulation of what we were exposed to, so if we were to go off the premise that memory is unreliable, then who we are is merely an illusion we conceived based on external stimuli.

Memory is subject to an assortment of vulnerabilities throughout each day, knowing a story and then hearing it from someone who also experienced it with you can shed light on details that you might not recall, or even that might make an appearance in your future renditions of the story. There are also social, cultural and political influences that shape our memories into what they become, whether it being a nation’s reaction to war or a religious minority’s belief that a miracle occurred; it is easy to get caught up in a collective memory.


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In Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, the filmmaker tackles this very subject. Nostalgia is often confused for memory, it is instrumental in the alteration of memory by evoking emotion and a longing for an ever dissipating past that is more imaginary than real.

In the late 19th Century, and as the world was rapidly making a shift into the technological advancements that would sweep societies, this reliance on nostalgia became ever present. There were radical social and economic changes that led a large segment of society to mentally linger in the past and even covet to return to when times were simpler.

Woody Allen’s story follows a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who is disillusioned with his fiancé and her materialistic desires, leaving him in a constant dream-like state, admiring all that is from the past. The confused screenwriter stumbles upon a group of people after midnight while lost in Paris, who he then embarks on an adventure with. He finds himself in the actual past, meeting characters such as Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali, and T.S. Elliot. Throughout his journey he finds that every one of these characters has the same yearning he does; they are all nostalgic about the past. This amplifies Allen’s message and is a testament to his storytelling skills; none of these people, none of us, accept the present. Rather we crave a time that has gone, a time that has been warped in our minds to resemble nothing that has ever existed.

The Iceland Inception

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Psychologists who have studied memory have agreed upon its malleability and its suggestibility. An American neuroscientist by the name of Gerald Edelman posited that remembering “is conceived as a dynamic act of remodelling”; that we utilize the creativity centers in our brain when remembering.

In January 1974, an 18-year-old laborer in Iceland was walking home from a bar and he never made it home; he disappeared. Ten months later, a construction worker (who was unrelated to the 18 year old) also vanished. Iceland, up until that point, was inherently safe as a country; people boasted about not locking their doors. Naturally after these two disappearances there was intense pressure from the public on the police to find out what had happened. With no bodies or weapons, a murder case was opened.

In the midst of the chaos and the pressure, the police arrested six people who were known to be leftists and protesters. In an attempt to find out what had happened to no avail, they began employing tactics that were similar to that of the East German Stasi.

The six suspects were isolated in solitary confinement for a time ranging 242 days with one of the suspects, to 655 days with another; the longest time in solitary confinement outside of Guantanamo Bay. During this time, the suspects were allowed minimal contact with their lawyers, as well as subjected to sleep deprivation and water torture. They were also interrogated for lengthy periods of time and often the police would have them act out a scenario of how they killed these two men. Ultimately, one of the suspects cracked and implicated the other six in the two murders. Eventually they signed confessions to actions that had been implanted in their mind. There was no evidence or witnesses to the crime and some theories suggest that the men fell in a frozen lake. Nonetheless, for a while the six suspects believed that they had actually committed this crime and only in recent years has the case been reopened and their imprisonment put into question.

Can I Trust Me?

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In this brief look at the fragility of memory and how nostalgia is sometimes mistaken for memories; it is important that we understand that truth is much more subjective than we think. Of course there are the broad strokes where claims can be made and verified that yesterday it rained. But what of eyewitness testimony in court? What of the stories we tell and hear from others? Can we trust our minds to be honest with ourselves?

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