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Memory Distortion and its Connection to Reality

nasabere's picture

Memory Distortion and its Connection to Reality

"Memory is the scaffolding upon which all mental life is constructed."

–Gerald Fischbach


Memory enables us to learn, make sense of the present, and contemplate the future via exploiting information from our past. The “scaffolding” is fragile and often flawed. Not a surprising claim, especially when juxtaposed along side of the fact that we are all prone to forgetting birthdays, names, and unintentionally warping anecdotes. What is curious, however, is the amount of power elicited by this seemingly faulty system. Ironically, this perplexing faculty is so profoundly central to our existence and understanding of the world around us; the importance that societies, new and old, place on eye-witness reports is a testament to the significance of accurate memory retrieval. Yet, the truth of the matter is that memory input often deviates substantially from the output. This so-called “memory distortion” raises some important questions: 1) is there much to gain from a seemingly flawed system? 2) what implications does this have for social memory and 3) related to the latter question, assuming that memory and reality are correlated, what new information does memory reveal about the nature of reality?

Daniel Schacter discusses seven types of memory distortion in his book entitled The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (1). He divides the “sins” into the following categories: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The “sins” of transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking are memory malfunctions that fall in to the class of omission—failure to bring to mind a desired fact, event, or idea. The remaining sins represent malfunctions in which some form of memory is present, but is either incorrect or unwanted. I will focus on the second class of “sins;” specifically those of misattribution, suggestibility, and bias.

Let us begin by reflecting on a narrative by Binjamin Wilkomirski (1) (2), a Holocaust survivor who vividly detailed the horrors of his childhood experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. In his memoir entitled Fragments, he recounts his earliest memories of childhood including witnessing his father being crushed to death against the wall of a house and his separation from his mother and siblings. After his liberation from the death camps, he was moved to Switzerland where he lived with a foster family. The book earned widespread critical admiration; upon reading it Jonathon Kozol raved “this stunning and austerely written work is so profoundly moving…so free from literary artifice of any kind that I wondered if I even had the right to offer it praise.” (2)

It turns out, however, that Wilkomirski was neither a Jew nor a survivor. The bases for his traumatic “memories” of Nazi horrors, whatever those may be, did not come from his own childhood experiences in a concentration camp. According to Stefan Maechler, the Swiss journalist who pursued the scandal, Bruno Dossekker— Wilkomirski birth name—never spent a day of his childhood in the hands of Nazis. Rather, young Bruno enjoyed life in peacetime Switzerland as a Swiss-born, wealthy Christian child. Even upon his exposé, Wilkomirski steadfastly professed that his account of his childhood was authentic and claimed that he had been secretly switched as a young boy with Bruno Dossekker upon his arrival in Switzerland.

Liar or not, what is of interest to us in this discussion is the following: Wilkomirski's alleged experiences in German-occupied Poland closely corresponded with real events of his factual childhood in Switzerland. This is the hallmark of the “sin” of misattribution. Memory misattribution often mistakes fantasy for reality or assigns a memory to the wrong source. Wilkomirski’s case is certainly extreme, but should not invalidate the frequency of memory misattribution in our daily lives.

In a study conducted by Intons-Peterson et. al (3), both younger and older adults were asked to remember the following list: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, and drowsy. Participants recalled proportionately as many non-presented words as presented words. Moreover, when the non-presented words were scattered among presented ones in a recognition test, participants were more likely to say they had heard the nonpresented words than the presented ones. In a similar study (4), subjects were presented with the following words: candy, sour, sugar, bitter, good, taste, tooth, nice, honey, soda, chocolate, heart, cake, eat, and pie. They were then asked to take a minute to write down all remembered words. The next test entailed that subjects consider the words taste, point, sweet and identify which word was included in the original list. An overwhelming 80-90% of participants confidently, but incorrectly, selected the word sweet. While the word sweet yields a close association to the presented collective of words, this association should not nullify the fact that its selection still results in a memory malfunction. Schachter proposes in his book Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (4) that "these [memory malfunctions] are produced by a general sense of familiarity that is strongest for conjunction words and weakest for entirely new words.” Incidents such as these are frightening reminders of the memory’s fallibility.

Similar to the “sin” of misattribution is that of suggestibility. In 1999, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus sought to explain how normal people can claim to have recovered memories of improbable experiences. With this in mind, she conceived the “lost-in-mall” technique to induce false memories (3). A sample experiment proceeded as such: an older brother, asked his younger brother to try to remember a time in which the younger had been lost in a shopping mall at age five. He initially recalled nothing, but after several days the child was able to produce a detailed recollection of the event. According to the older brother and family members, the younger brother had never been lost in a shopping mall; however this newly elucidated “false memory” became very real to the younger child. In a sample size of 24 participants, experimenters reported that a quarter of subjects falsely recalled being lost in the mall or a similar public place." (3) Subsequent studies performed by a variety of researchers generated false memories of such extreme events as taking a hot-air balloon ride, being hospitalized overnight, having a bizarre accident at a family wedding, having nearly drowned but been rescued by a lifeguard, and being the victim of a vicious animal attack. (5)

Lastly is the “sin” of bias which manifests itself in several ways as defined by Schacter. This section will focus on what he terms “stereotyping bias.” The following is an excerpt from a memoir by Brent Staples, an African American journalist, who recounts his experiences upon going for a walk as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (6):

"My first victim was a woman—white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street… It was in the echo of that terrified woman's footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I'd come into—the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse... In that first year, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear...but I have learned to employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi…even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn't be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.”

The twenty-something white women encountered by Staples in this narrative employs a wise evolutionary strategy. In her reference frame, the black male represents a potential murderer, rapist, or robber as substantiated by negative media images and statistics that highlight the high percentage of black males in American prisons. One might argue that this fact alone is sufficient to warrant the behavior of the woman in his story. Such "energy saving" mechanisms simplify the heavy task of comprehending a complex social world that otherwise requires a considerable cognitive effort to size up every new individual. Thus by convention, we rely on generalizations. Unfortunately, such gross oversimplifications exclude an overwhelming body of information regarding the nature of the world around us. In fact, from a purely genetic standpoint, this logic is unsound; there exists no biological rational to explain why an entire race of people would be more predisposed to delinquency (holding all other parameters constant). In this example, Staples was simply a normal, criminal-record-free college student going for a walk. What is particularly interesting about his account is this: by simply whistling a tune, he has the ability to completely reshape the way in which he is perceived—a testament to the malleability of our “world view.”

Related to this is a study conducted at Yale University. There, researchers revealed that upon reviewing a list of male names, college students of all races were more likely to claim that they recognized local criminal names when presented with “stereotypically black” names, such as Tyrone Washington and Darnell Jones then when presented with “stereotypically white” names such as Adam McCarthy or Frank Smith. Ironically, none of the presented names were those of known criminals (1) (4). Such biases demonstrate how generic memories shape our interpretation of the world, even when we are unaware of their existence or influence. However memory biases are not limited to that of stereotyping; Schacter speaks of biases of consistency/change—biases that lead us to reconstruct the past as overly similar to, or different from the present—and that of the ego, the bias that overemphasizes the importance of the self in every situation. Clearly, these biases have some serious implications regarding the validity of our individual perception of the world around us. It is often incomplete and altered as all the abovementioned data suggests. If "memory is the scaffolding upon which all mental life is constructed,"—and "it’s all in the head," so to speak—what does this mean for us in terms of our understanding of reality?

Before this question is addressed, let us first do justice to the more positive aspects of memory that have evaded the discussion thus far. First, it should be pointed out that memory does a remarkably decent job of handling incredible volumes of information that we force upon it in short time spans. Schacter argues that in illuminating the “sins” of memory, we should not forget the inherent “blessings.” The nervous system’s ability to filter out clutter is really quite extraordinary. That only specific events are remembered in a given situation should not be taken lightly; in fact the same systems that allow for distortion allow for efficient human functioning. A malfunctioning memory is often the price we pay for flexibility and adaptability—processes and functions that otherwise serve us well in many respects.

While this is slightly reassuring, I am left more unsettled then anything. I contemplate the implications of the sum of this information on understanding social memory and reality. The human being eternally seeks harmony, balance, and consistency in places where such virtues are implausible. As a result, we slant memory processes in order to achieve these results via the mechanisms described above. What of our histories? If they are recorded by flawed memories, does this not perpetuate distortion? If I believe in historical distortions, is not some part of the sensory input that I receive about the world around me thereby altered? Does the faultiness of memory place humanity at risk of losing touch with a fundamental realness—a universal something that is more accurate than the distortion? I believe so—I believe that there exists a truth that man/woman is incapable of bearing witness to unless we are able to surmount the limitations of our memory and or own physiological make-up. Grim, yes, but who ever said such prospects have to invalidate the human experience?



1. Schacter D., The Seven Sins of Memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2001.

2. Binjamin Wilkomirski

3. Intons-Peterson MJ. , Best DL. Memory Distortions and Their Prevention. Laurence Erlbaum Associates. 1998.

4. Schacter D., Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. HarperCollins Publishers1996

5. “Lost-In-Mall” Technique

6. Brent Staples’ Narrative

7. Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology, and the Brain

8. Lost-In-Mall-Technique

9. The Creation of Reality in Psychoanalysis

10. Fara P., Patterson K. Memory. Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Paul Grobstein's picture

memory and "reality"

Interesting issues indeed. And yes with some significant connection not only to Krishnamurti but also to Buddhist and Hindu perspectives (see, for example, The reality of Reality and my comments following it). Perception involves "illusions" and memory "sins" if one believes their task is to represent "fundamental reality". But perhaps they have evolved not so much to reflect "reality' as to contribute to shaping and reshaping it?
Farmgal's picture

J.Krishnamurti would agree...

Memory hinders our perception of reality. Every new event or person we encounter is filtered through our flawed storehouse of previous ideas and experiences - we never really see things as they actually are. We translate the present through the past, furthering the distortion. Memory is amazingly useful for skills like cooking, reading, driving a car, assembling a motor, etc. But to see things and people as they actually are - not through our conditioned response to what we think they are - we must be aware of these filters. Simply observing yourself and being aware of your own conditioning as it responds in daily life seems to dissolve that conditioning - freeing your mind to perceive reality without the distortions of your memory. Try it! It's like looking at the world through fresh eyes.
Thank you for the great article. Have you read any of Jiddu Krishnamurti's books? He was often making the same points expressed in your article.