Recovered Memories

If you lost your car keys a year ago and never found them, would it be possible for you to suddenly “recover” a memory, that, say, you left them in your hockey duffle bag?

We are not talking about fifteen minutes ago or a day ago or a few days ago.  Let’s say a year, but maybe more.  Would it be possible to suddenly find that experience in your memory, of, say, putting the keys in a tin can under the deck so someone could pick them up there, or under a mat, or even in your toiletry bag under the sink in your bathroom?  Would such a memory be reliably accurate?

I wouldn’t say that that never happens.  But if it does, it is very, very rare.  In fact, it is very, very, very rare.

Most of the time, if you can’t find something because you forgot where you put it, you will not, a year or more later, suddenly “recover” a memory of where you put it.  In fact, the further away, in time, from the moment when you lost the item, the less likely it is that you will ever remember where you left it.

And if you did, by some remarkable chance, suddenly think– oh, it’s in my hockey duffle bag– I remember— and you find your keys there, I would put it to you that it was purely by chance.

What you might recover, with the blatant encouragement of a counselor, is a constructed memory. Your keys won’t be there, except, by pure chance.  And the odds of the keys being somewhere you might store keys is not zero.

We don’t think of all memories at once. Never. Memories come into consciousness as they are prompted by the mind, in search of a missing item, a moment with a fondly remembered friend, a smell or sound, or a piece of music. Memories are not like tape recordings: we often blend elements of different past experiences or present perceptions into recalled activities.

There are many people who fervently believe that some memories, especially of trauma, can be “repressed”. These people are rarely not advocates for some social action of some kind.

I don’t believe it. I believe that bad experiences, in fact, provide vivid memories. You may choose to not bring them forward in your mind very often, but they are not hidden or buried.

Have you ever heard a Holocaust victim speak about his or her experiences? Have you read “Maus”? Or any of a hundred books on wartime experiences in Europe? If “repression” were possible, it beggars the imagination that these witnesses bear such voluminous, eloquent testimony.

They remember.

Because it really happened.


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