Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Even Memory Needs a Helping Hand

Looking for any edge I could find in filling out my brackets, I started reading this story about a Kansas University basketball player who lost both his mom and grandparents in the same month. It detailed how he was at school, hundreds of miles from home, when he got the news, and that his teammates just gathered around him for a big group hug .  A sad story no doubt, but I was more disturbed by the memory it brought back.

Actually, what really disturbed me was the fact that I had forgotten the recalled incident in the first place.  It was over twenty years ago - I was completing Basic Training in Ft. Benning, GA (a long story for another day) when one of the guys in my platoon got a message that his mom had died. We were mostly 18-20 at the time, from all walks of life, a bunch of boys trying to prove ourselves men, but seeing poor Private Tate trying to control his emotions got all of our emotions flowing, and we just quietly circled around him in a show of sympathy and support.

You would think that one would never forget a moment like that. But I totally did. It’s not like I blocked it out or suppressed it, I just completely forgot it.  Well, not forgot exactly, as the newspaper article brought it right back, but you get the point.

Anyway, this got me thinking about another situation – one that I clearly remember, yet many of my friends don’t. It’s regarding where we were when the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded – but- before I get into that, I need to bring up one more thing.

September 11, 2001

You see that date and instantly remember that day, right? Where you were. Who you  were with. What you were doing when you first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. You remember it like it was only yesterday, right? Truth is, most of us don’t. Turns out, our memories of even major events like 9/11 are unreliable, sketchy, or just plain wrong.

I see you shaking your head, disagreeing with me. I know, because I didn’t believe it either. Until it was proven to me in an unquestionable manner: I was still at Southern back in 2001, finishing my Masters in Psychology, and two days after 9/11, a professor came into our class and asked us to write down everything we remembered about that horrible day.  The majority of the class voluntarily wrote out their stories, many in vivid detail, almost grateful for the chance to record their recollections. He then collected them, made a big show of sealing them in a large orange envelope and said goodbye.  We didn’t see him for another four months, when he came back for the last class of the semester.

“Remember me?” he asked, his eyes twinkling as we all nodded. “Last time we met,” he continued, “I asked you to write down exactly what you remember from September 11th. The who, what, why, when, and where. And tonight, I’d like you to do the same thing. Just write down exactly what you remember from that day. Who you were with. Where you were. What you were doing when you first heard about the attacks.”

Confused, but curious, we did as asked. And then were shocked when given the opportunity to compare them to the originals he triumphantly removed from the envelope. The majority of us were way off. Someone who had written that they first heard about it on their car radio, later recalled learning about it while at a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Another originally wrote that he was alone his dorm room, but four months later, he was suddenly in the Student Center. And it wasn’t just minor details. The people, places, and things described in such vivid detail in the originals were in many cases completely different from the people, places, and things (also vividly described) in the new versions. And that was after only four months!

It really freaked me out, seeing my own writing describing an event so different than the one I “remembered” – which is why I missed much of his follow-up discussion on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, the validity of repressed memories, and so on. But the main idea stuck with me: we literally make our own memories.

This was so mind-blowing to me, I had to test it out for myself. I decided to base my informal study on the event that preceded 9/11 as the “Where were you when…?" moment for my generation: the Challenger explosion.

I knew where I was: it was a snow day, so there was no school, and my friends and I were exploring the woods when several of us fell through some thin ice and had to be “rescued” by a neighborhood mom. She served us cocoa as we dried off, and switched on the news to show us what happened to the space shuttle. 

All this I knew for a fact (confirmed by both the National Weather Service and Shelton School System) but I started asking around, seeing what my friends remembered from that day. I even widened my search and asked other schoolmates, people who weren’t with us that day, but I knew were not in school.

It was incredible how many of them swore they were either in school, watching it with their class as it happened, or home sick on the couch watching it on TV. Those who remember being in school described their teachers crying, kids screaming, parents coming to pick them up early. The "sick" ones recalled parents calling from work to check on them, or in some cases actually coming home. Only one out of about 25 I talked to mentioned a snow day. For the rest, there was not a doubt in their minds that what they remembered wasn’t true.  Then I pulled the rug out from under them.

But even with my proof (a photocopy of the weather report for that day and a newspaper article mentioning the school closings) they STILL didn’t believe me. It was crazy. And sort of scary. It makes you wonder how many of our cherished childhood memories are wrong.  Did they really happen? And if not, what did happen?

I guess in the end, it really doesn’t matter.  Perception is reality, right? But then again, if our recollection of our perception is wrong, then how can we ever know what reality is? Whoa, this is starting to get trippy – I think I have a better chance at picking the Final Four than figuring this out, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Or what you think your thoughts are!


  1. hmmm....i wish i could remember where my elephant made in india is??? i probably gave it away but cannot recall why or how just likely sposed it's energy would be best serving someone else :)

    speaking for myself it's sounds & smells that evoke a clear memory...the smell of a pipe always reminds me of the strange character that lurked in the basement of my elementary school...aka the psychologist...

    and i do recall an informal survey of the challenger disaster...i do "remember" being in school & it's possible as believe it or not there are other towns than Shelton ;), but i know for sure the memory is mixed with that of Reagan being shot...me lying on the couch sick, windows open, light sheer curtains billowing to let in fresh air, and kaplooey right in the middle of the soap operas me mammy had running, babysitting & dementing me all at once :)

    if you see in person, ask me about the chicken kiev & as it relates to all of the above :)

    now if i remembered who i am supposed to be i would sigh this, also, d'accord, i cannot, so...

    fan-tastically yours,

    me :)

  2. I guess perception is reality. Isn't it crazy how the mind can twist things?

    It's funny talking to my sister about our lives growing up--you'd think we were raised in different homes.

  3. Ahhh, the SCSU student center... I still have the blanket and wool sweater I bought from those vendors that used to set up shop in the hall. I wonder is my fav couch is still there... Right under the TV I used to nap on while watching GH. Actually, now I'm wondering if there ever really was a couch there at all? I like that I can reject reality and make my own. Actually ... The couch was a hospital bed and the nurses were wearing jungle outfits and Kermit was singing something about a lime and a coconut.... Yes, that definitely was it!!!!

  4. This showed up on my FB feed today...I'm fine with that, because I remember the exact second that I found out about it. I worked for our county and the County Emergency Director had an office right beside mine.

    He walked out of his office and said exactly what happened.

    I was so dumb, I didn't know what the World Trade Center was. I do now.