Thursday, February 7, 2013

False Memories

The highly readable neurologist Oliver (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) Sacks takes his own memories for a subject in a recent New York Review of Books article. He published a vivid personal memory of the London Blitz, and had to take it back when his older brother told him he wasn't there, and showed that his knowledge of it came from a vivid letter written by another brother who was. Yet Sacks's memory of the bomb he never saw felt just as vivid and personal and saturated with detail as his memory of an earlier one that he had witnessed.

Personal knowledge is not necessarily knowledge. Evolution just hasn't equipped us to be cameras who capture an image and retain it intact. That's why family historians are advised to write things down soon after they happen -- put that potentially mutable memory into a fixed form. Your great-grandmother's memory of a 1920 wedding is more valuable in the form of a letter written the day after than in the form of  a beautiful memory recalled 80 years later. Of course the beautiful memory is better than nothing, but it's not necessarily accurate even if she's sure it is. Sacks had absolutely no doubt of his. (I wrote about my own example of a collective family false memory here.)

Oliver Sacks, "Speak, Memory," New York Review of Books, vol. 60, no. 3 (21 February 2013):19-21.

Harold Henderson, "False Memories," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 8 February 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

No comments: