How many times has something sudden happened to you and, in the retelling, changes slightly as you go along? And how many people see the same incident from different perspectives? Memory, indeed reality, can be a difficult thing to get your arms around.
In this morning's Times, a couple of follicly-challenged psychology professors, Christopher Chabris (top) and Daniel Simons (bottom), wrote, "Why Our Memory Fails Us." Money quote (my emphasis):
...the content of our memories can easily change over time. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett conducted a series of experiments that mimicked the “telephone” game, in which you whisper a message to the person next to you, who then passes it along to the person next to them, and so on. Over repeated tellings, the story becomes distorted, with some elements remaining, others vanishing, and entirely new details appearing.
When we recall our own memories, we are not extracting a perfect record of our experiences and playing it back verbatim. Most people believe that memory works this way, but it doesn’t. Instead, we are effectively whispering a message from our past to our present, reconstructing it on the fly each time. We get a lot of details right, but when our memories change, we only “hear” the most recent version of the message, and we may assume that what we believe now is what we always believed. Studies find that even our “flashbulb memories” of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.