As we live our lives, it is not uncommon to contemplate our memories of times past and compare them to our hopes for tomorrow. The difficulty, of course, comes in the actual remembering of what has transpired. Our memories are not quite as secure as a photograph or a digitized record that we’ve filed on our computer. Although it is true that our minds function much like modern computers, our memories are far more fuzzy, imprecise and less certain than what’s on our hard drives.

Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that eye witness testimony is surprisingly unreliable. The problem is one of focus, however, more than anything. The non-essential elements of our surroundings, and our pre-existing memories, often intrude into what we so desperately want to remember. The classic psychology test, where a man runs into the room and snatches the purse of the professor in plain sight of all her students is fascinating. The students who witness the event have a terrible time in recognizing the perpetrator. Though they remember that someone snatched her purse, the testimony is filled with inaccuracies, with each student reporting differently from every other. They can’t agree on the perpetrator’s clothing, hair style, skin color or really much of anything. The witnesses are so shocked by the event, that the details surrounding it have not been accurately recorded in their minds.

Part of that comes from the weird way in which our memories work. Rather than everything being recorded sequentially, like the information on a tape recording or video cassette, our brains store the information in many disparate locations among the billions of neurons in our heads. The color of an object goes in one spot, while its texture and shape is filed elsewhere. Its name is filed so that the first letter of the word is not kept with the other letters that make it up. That’s the cause of the ubiquitous phenomenon of remembering the first letter of someone’s name and failing to come up with the remainder of it. The person’s face is inexplicably separately from the person’s name, which itself has been split into two parts. So we know we’ve seen this person before, and we know his name begins with a “J.” But we’ll be lucky if we can recall whether his name is John, Jacob, or Jerry.

Worse yet, as time passes, memories reorganize themselves. Bits from one event leak into the occurrences of another. The details of one person’s face slide into someone else’s. The horrible story is told of a woman who was raped one afternoon and gave the police a detailed description of her attacker, along with his name. When they investigated the matter, however, they discovered that he had an ironclad alibi: he’d been giving a television interview at the time of the attack. It turned out that the woman’s television had been turned on during the rape and somehow she’d mixed the image of the man on the television with her attacker.

Researchers have discovered that it is remarkably easy to implant false memories into both children and adults. Stories that our parents told us, bits of television programs and events from books we read may all too easily be incorporated into our memories so that we may believe with firm conviction that we participated in events that never happened at all.

As we learn ever more about the fallibility of human memories, how what we think we remember may in fact be a combination of several memories that our minds have connected together into some fantasy that never really happened, we may be tempted to become extreme skeptics and doubt the reality of any and everything that ever happened.

But of course our experience teaches us that despite our fallibility, we still, for the most part, have mostly accurate recollections of our lives. Our friends and families mostly agree with what we recall of our lives that they participated in with us. The memories match the paper records of what we’ve lived through: our wives and children exist, we can see our diplomas on our wall, the trophies we won, the awards we were given. We get bills each month from the cable or satellite television service to demonstrate that we, in fact, did watch several episodes of CSI, while our phone bill itemizes those people we talked to on the phone. There are photographs, some fading, of the events we attended and the people we once knew. We really did take that trip to Israel, and we really did work on that kibbutz. All the details may be a bit muddled. But the smells of the chicken barns, the pain of cutting my finger on a banana knife—those things remain intensely clear and really happened. I’ve got a scar to prove it. Some events crowd out the distractions that might otherwise confuse.

Thus, the days of our lives slip into the murky maelstrom of our brains. Mostly, we remember them well, even if some of the edges might have already worn off.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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