The memory is burned into your mind. It was your birthday. You turned 7. You were wearing your favorite pink dress. Your sister bumped into you, chocolate ice cream cone in hand. The ice cream got smeared all over the front of your dress, and everyone laughed at you. But your sister always swears it didn't happen this way. You bumped into her, she says. And no one made fun of you; your guests were excitedly lining up to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and didn't even see the accident. Who's right?
Who knows. While many of us think of our memories as movies we simply replay in our heads, they're actually nothing like that. They're fuzzy, blurry snapshots of the past that our brains constantly tinker with. Our brain might incorporate things from the present into an old memory, for example, or fill in any gaps in our recollections with snippets of other memories. And all of our memories are sifted through our own personal filters and biases, which is why several people can observe the same incident and have different takes on what occurred. To look at it another way, our recollections are stories we remember about ourselves that contain some truths, but also details based on general truths about us and our lives.
In the party memory above, for example, you remember people laughing at you, while your sister remembers the other kids laughingly getting ready to play a game. Either scenario may be true, or neither. No one may have been laughing at all. But you were embarrassed, and stored the memory of your friends laughing at you. Or perhaps your brain inserted that detail later, because the one fact it remembered was your humiliation. Your sister was nonplussed about the ice cream incident, and her memory is of a happy, joyful party scene.
Researchers who have studied memory for decades have learned that our recall really stinks. To prove it, let's look at 10 ways our memories are most likely false.