Memories: trust provisionally, but verify always

Steven Novella makes an important point: memories are fluid. There’s no VCR in your head, and no tape recorder either, and memories are constructs. You remember the framework (sometimes very poorly) of a past event, and your brain builds a plausible set of details around it. When you picture Christmas at your grandmother’s house when you were 12, you don’t have a record in your head of how many logs were in the fireplace or a second by second recording of the flickering of the fire. You remember that Grandma had a fireplace, and sometimes she had logs burning in it, and maybe there was a fire that year, and your brain obligingly assembles an image for you.

Novella is talking specifically about this recent hullaballoo over Brian Williams getting a story about events in Iraq wrong — he anecdotally places himself in a more dangerous situation than actually occurred. To which I say…so what? A remembered event is intrinsically unreliable. What matters is whether someone persists in believing an error, or adjusts one’s recollection on the basis of evidence. Oh, there’s a picture of the kids around the fireplace that year, and there was no fire? OK. No big deal. Unless I insist that <AlexJonesMode>someone used high technology to edit the old polaroid in a conspiracy to false flag CO2 release from burning wood as a cause of global warming</AlexJonesMode>.

Trauma also mangles memories. My very earliest ‘memory’ is of lying in bed, and seeing my baby brother crawl out of his crib and fall and hurt himself (which puts me at about 2 or 3 years of age). It’s very vivid, and my primary emotion at the time was fear and anxiety, but my mother tells me there was no such incident — that no, my brother Jim did not fall on his head as a baby. I can accept that; I suspect that what really happened is that I imagined a terrifying scenario that impressed me so strongly that over the years, my memory of a memory of a dream assumed the status of reality.

It happens all the time. I imagine that in Williams’ case, an event that was suffused with fear and confusion and the desire to be brave and heroic was especially prone to gradual confabulation. If someone is confronted with evidence that their memories are seriously faulty, the only problem would be if there was an insistence on repeating the error, or making excuses to blame others.

An amusing portrayal of the phenomenon:


  1. Rich Woods says

    One of my earliest memories is running through the long grass in the back garden of the house my mum and dad were looking to buy, on a summer’s day a few weeks before my third birthday. I mentioned it to Mum several years ago, and she told me that she never let me out of the pushchair all during that visit, for fear I’d run off and hurt myself. When they bought the place, Dad cut all the grass and mended the fences before we moved in, so that he could be sure there was nothing dangerous left lying around.

    It’s still a nice mental image, though.

  2. twas brillig (stevem) says

    But what of ‘eidetic memory’?
    I know… :-/ , a feature of _some_ brains, very very few brains…
    I am obsessed with memory these days, being a “survivor” of TBI, I always question whether a memory is real or fabricated, also “what happened to my memory of some other event? I have memory of being able to remember it before the TBI, but not any more. I only got meta-memory ;-(”
    Back On Topic: Memory is a pretty bizarre thing, and how it can be manipulated by outside forces (i.e. false memories),
    gonna debunk the ” ‘Grandmother’ Neuron” trope? (that every memory can be isolated to its own particular neuron, that memory of Grandma has a neuron that “activates” whenever Grandma’s face is seen, in any context)

  3. abner1 says

    When I first read about this effect many years ago, I tried to see just how malleable memory was by seeing if I could construct one. I repeatedly imagined a specific childhood event that I knew hadn’t happened … and now I remember that event as having happened. If it wasn’t for also having the memory of having constructed that memory, I would be as sure of that event as any of my other childhood memories.

    The experience taught me that I was playing with fire, and I decided not to continue with any more experiments in memory construction. You could get yourself in a lot of trouble that way.

  4. Jeremy Shaffer says

    When I was 16 an acquaintance of mine had this awesome birthday party. It was one of the best parties I had ever gone to, being one of the best moments of my teenage years, a fact I’d mention often well into my 20’s. Then one night I was talking to a friend of mine, who had also been at the party, and brought it up in conversation. She quickly informed me that I didn’t go to this party. I was never there. My initial reaction was thinking she had me confused with someone else or taken leave of her faculties. I had these very vivid memories of being there so of course I must have been, right?

    Then she explained the problem. I had planned on going but I came down with the flu (the really real flu, not just a bad cold that tends to get called the “flu”) a day or two beforehand. As I was on the mend I must have talked to people who had gone and somehow converted their accounts into “memories”, possibly aided by fever and fatigue brought on by the illness. Even now when I recall these “memories” they feel no different than ones I’m reasonably certain are actual memories, despite the fact I am well aware they’re not real.

  5. Doc Bill says

    The odd thing about my earliest memory is that I see myself! I’m standing in the snow in my snow suit and Dad pulls up on the driveway in a new car and honks the horn. The car is blue/gray. I would have been 3-4 at the time.

    Totally fabricated, most likely from photos of me playing in the snow as a kid. However, the memory is vivid and I would swear it was true.

  6. Al Dente says

    I have a very vivid memory of riding my yellow bicycle when I was six or seven. Some years ago I was looking at a family photo album and there was a picture of me, age 7, with my blue bicycle. My mother doesn’t think I ever had a yellow bike when I was a child.

  7. Rich Woods says

    This concept has been bugging me for the last few hours, so at the risk of boring you all with more of my earliest childhood memories, here’s another one.

    My earliest memory is of the two-year-old me, in my pyjamas, standing at the top of the stairs of my parents’ best friends’ house, looking at the clock on the wall. it was six o’clock in the evening. The only time I ever stayed overnight at that house was when my mum went into hospital to give birth to my brother.

    I mentioned this to my mum several years ago (the same time as at #1, those first few days after my dad died), and she confirmed that I’d stayed with their friends that night and several nights afterwards, until she and my brother came home from the hospital. She also remarked that I’d always been good at counting and had learnt to tell the time very early on, yet neither she nor my dad had specifically taught me to do so by that age.

    Now I don’t know whether I have a confabulated memory or both of us do…

  8. Andy Groves says

    It is good to see that after many years and over a hundred thousand innocent lives lost, the liars that caused the Iraq war are finally being held to account and punished.

    Oh wait…. no they’re not.

    The only thing Brian Williams needs to be ashamed about is his fake tan.

  9. woozy says

    The odd thing about my earliest memory is that I see myself!

    Not at all unusual. About 60% of people’s “first memory” are visualized “third person” or out of body. My first memory is now out of body but I remember a time when it was first person.

    Visualizing a memory from an outside perspective is simply an example of the subjective and changing nature of memory and that third person perspective is more common than not simply demonstrates this.

  10. kevinalexander says

    I never laugh at people who say they were abducted by aliens or Jesus or Jesusaliens. They remember it so perfectly.

  11. Menyambal - not as pretentious as I seem says

    Yeah, I had a memory of my little sister walking across the table and leaving a footprint in my bowl of pea soup – that’s the same sister that was standing up, posing, in the back seat of the Packard when we brought her home from the hospital. Even now I sometimes find evidence that my memories from ten or twelve years back aren’t quite accurate. And, in disagreements with family, somebody’s memories are going wonky pretty fast.

  12. jaybee says

    There is the study about the Challenger disaster and false memories. A number of people were interviewed in detail within a week of the event. Five years later or so, most of the people were located again and the same questions were asked. The majority of people had significant details wrong (eg, where they were when they heard, not just trivial things like what they had for breakfast that day).

    When their original version was recounted to them, a few people even went so far as to strenuously claim that their original version was mistaken, as they were quite sure their current memories were entirely accurate.

  13. okstop says


    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that there are no experimentally confirmed cases of eidetic memory in adults, and even in children, the evidence is unclear, at best. It can’t be a counterexample of the phenomenon doesn’t exist.

  14. Menyambal - not as pretentious as I seem says

    I sometimes get the memories of dreams confused with memories of actual events. And if I were to dream of an actual event that did happen, but different in my dream …

    I said “sometimes” because I usually get things sorted out, but just last week I had to reclassify a memory that I had rather liked.

    I used to think that I had good conscious control over most of my mind, with some subconscious help in figuring things out. Its getting to where I have to practice being aware and to watch out for flaws. Somebanana fleep garpooz fritatta, mate.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Having his helicopter shot at was the mildest and least consequential of all the lies Brian Williams has told on the air (e.g., “the cleanest war in all of military history”) – but calling out any of the real whoppers would jeopardize all his professional colleagues who did the same or worse.

  16. says

    When re-watching some episodes of an old comedy series (Red Dwarf), I noticed something strange in my recollections: I had remembered many of the jokes, but they were often presented differently. The core of the joke (i.e. the specific absurdity or misunderstanding or reversal of expectation) was there, but the lines (and sometimes the characters involved) had changed.

    Presumably my brain had stored an abstract representation of the joke, but not all of the details. In recall, it had filled these in these details sensibly, but inaccurately.

  17. anbheal says

    I love all these commenters’ stories. I’ve had a few of my cherished memories debunked by older sisters (who, I’m almost always certain, are the ones misremembering, even though they were older and had a better set of psychological bookmarks to work with). But just yesterday I was on a Skype session with my inamorata, and she mentioned that Roots was showing on Netflix, how much she liked it in high school, and that she planned on watching it again. I replied, no Roots came out when we were in 6th or 7th grade. She clicked up Netflix and said, “nuh-huh, hon, 1977”. Impossible, I cried, I remember Billy Cohen doing a (racist) Kunta Kinte imitation, and I haven’t seen him since 8th grade. Then I Googled it, just to make sure Netflix wasn’t talking about the first video version, and no, it was on broadcast TV in 1977. I really Remember Billy doing his little African jig with a funny accent, clear as day. Except…..clearly….I don’t. Maybe Billy was doing Jimmy Walker, “Dyn-o-Mite”, e.g., and some kid in junior year of high school did the Kunta Ninte bit. But it was so strange to me yesterday, realizing that my Billy Cohen memory was false, as it’s vivid — I can see Billy in our 7th grade math room doing his schtik. Funny, the brain.

  18. says

    For years I had a vivid memory of exactly where I was when I heard of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Roe vs. Wade. I was on the back landing outside my apartment in New Orleans, and the very cute blond medical student from California in the apartment next door was the one who told me about it. I can still see the sun coming in through a back window and the boards of the old wood floor. I kept this memory for at least 15 years, until one day it hit me that Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, and I got my master’s degree in 1971, moved away from New Orleans, got married and moved back by 1973, but my then husband and I lived in a different apartment, nowhere near cute med student, when the decision was made.

    What did happen while I lived in the old apartment? New York legalized all abortions, for any reason, not just for women living in NY but for anyone willing to make the trip as well. Prior to Roe v Wade, that was a huge advance in the availability of legal abortion for women. And shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case of Roe v Wade.

    So now I think what I remembered oh, so faultily was cute med student telling me about the NY law, and that the Supreme Court was going to hear a case dealing with the legality of abortion, and that in later years I confabulated it to be my memory of where I was when I heard the decision instead. I think that’s what happened, but of course now I’m a lot less willing to say I’m sure.

  19. mordred says

    I remember visiting my grandmothers family when I was very little. It must have been at All-Saints, because I clearly remember the way the local graveyard was illuminated with the candles people had put on all the graves. I looked down into the graveyard from a nearby hill and was really impressed, it’s the only thing I could remember from that visit.

    Years later I realized that the village in question lies in an area which is flat as a pancake. The only hills there are created by moles! And it could not have been a graveyard back home, as I grew up in a protestant area of Germany where the custom of lighting candles on a grave was rather uncommon.

  20. says

    My first memory is from the age of two. My parents and I were in a rowing boat on a river, just downstream of a weir. My father rowed too close to the weir and water entered the boat. We then had to bail out the boat using picnic cups we were carrying.

    It was a genuine event, as my parents also remember it. And I don’t think it’s a false memory of a real event, either. Firstly it’s not really a story my parents tell, and so I am unlikely to have assimilated a third party account. Secondly, on seeing the weir many years later, my memory of it was accurate (and not at all like any childish vision of a boat filling with water).

  21. Menyambal - not as pretentious as I seem says

    Speaking of childhood memories: I lived in California from about age 2 to age 5 years. When I was 19 or so I went back, and was out in the country somewhere, and had a big moment of, “Oh, yeah, this is how hills are supposed to look.” And around age 50, I sat in a Chinese restaurant in Fresno, California, and said, “Yep, this is how it was.” (They served red and yellow sauce (cocktail? and hot mustard) in the same little dish, half-and-half, and the food and decor were different from here in cashew-chicken land, even from the nice restaurants. But I remembered.)

  22. says

    My first memories are more things than events.
    I remember the two most favourite plushies I lost before I got “Boomer” for my 6th birthday (he’s still with me, old fellow). I remember the huge plastic play-elements we had in daycare*.
    I remember how I scratched my inner thigh in daycare playing on the hill. I do have the scar to prove it.

    *huge in terms of preschoolers. I also remember that the whole play area was huge. Several acres if you ask me. Now my kid is in that very same daycare and the play area is rather small. I’d say “too small” if I didn’t remember that for a 5yo it is huuuuuge.

    If the memory was reliable abusers wouldn’t have a chance with gaslighting.

  23. unclefrogy says

    all which have implications for history, politics and legal testimony besides our own personal recollections.
    uncle frogy

  24. tbtabby says

    Ever hear the urban legend about Soupy Sales closing his TV show by jokingly telling kids to send him those “funny colored pieces of paper” in their parent’s wallets, and getting millions? It can be objectively proven that this never happened, but there are not only people who remember seeing it on TV, there are people who remember being in the studio audience at the time.

  25. says

    Now you’ve all got me paranoid about my memories!

    Anyways, within the past few days I have been taking video of myself, basically like a journal. I suppose any kind of journal could work to help store memories, but being able to actually see things will be nice years from now.

    About memories, when I was young I had a memory that I thought was my first memory, but I didn’t really know what it was. It seemed like a white room with a crib and everyone was dressed in white, like the TV place from the old Willy Wonka movie. I often thought maybe it was a memory of that movie…

    Ah, now I remember something interesting to share. Actually as few:

    1-made up DOOM stories
    2-catching myself making up a memory
    3-magic footprint transformation

    1) me and my brothers started having an obsession with DOOM, which we had played years previously but currently didn’t have access to. We invented a very different idea of what the game was, and it was way deeper and more cinematic than the real DOOM. We were a bit dissapointed when we learned that.

    2) I was maybe between 11 and 14, and my brother and I were sharing memories of fun times doing stuff. I suddenly cought myself telling a story that wasn’t true, in fact I was making it up on the spot. This was weird because part of me didn’t know I was lying (or something?), and had suddenly discovered that I was. And I knew I had done this a few previous times too…the weirdest part was that my brother, right after I told him about this, said he thought he remembered the event I was describibng as if it actually happened.

    3) Late at night at some get together with people I didn’t really know, me and other kids were outside. I very much remembered that we drew squigles inside of our shoeprints in the sand, and watched the footprints magically transform into the footprints of some kind of monster (dinosaur? warewolf? I don’t remember). For a while that memory was vivid enough, but questionable enough, that it really made me wonder…

  26. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    The amazing part about it is that I’m the only person in my family this ever happens to. No one else ever misremembers or confabulates anything. *wallpunch*

  27. says

    twas brillig #3

    But what of ‘eidetic memory’?

    To the extent that such a thing exists, it applies to semantic memory, not episodic memory. Semantic memory is, broadly, the memory of facts and data, while episodic memory is autobiographical recollections, and is the topic of the current discussion. The two classes of memory appear to be stored in different ways. I personally haven’t got any episodic memory to speak of beyond about 6 months, and even that’s patchy, so I’ve learned to mostly discount it in all cases. My semantic memory is quite good, though.

    I never laugh at people who say they were abducted by aliens or Jesus or Jesusaliens. They remember it so perfectly.

    I’m about 90% convinced that there is some actual thing that’s happening there that’s the same in the great majority of those cases (i.e., they’re not just making it up or confabulating it, they genuinely did have the experience they are relating) I wouldn’t care to hazard a claim as to what causes that experience, other than that encounters with extraterrestrial beings are about the least likely explanation.

  28. opposablethumbs says

    Azkyroth, oddly enough I’ve had this experience too – the other person never misremembers, strange though it might seem it’s always me …
    I haven’t punched the wall, but I do seem to have a few physical symptoms (completely unrelated, of course).

  29. consciousness razor says

    The amazing part about it is that I’m the only person in my family this ever happens to. No one else ever misremembers or confabulates anything. *wallpunch*

    How could you be sure? What if you think you remember it never happening to them, but you’re actually being tricked by an evil demon?

  30. says

    dannysichel 32

    What would it be like to have an implant in your brain that kept track of everything that happened? A perfect memory backup? And what would it be like to have an argument with someone who had such an implant?

    There’s a character in the Vorkosigan series who has one of those; they never caught on because 90% of the people who had them simply couldn’t cope, leaving Simon Illyan a curiosity. Having arguments with him is very unpleasant, because he’s never wrong and can repeat back what you said last time or the time before, perfect down to the inflection, and will. (We see it happen a few times, since he’s the main character’s boss).

  31. The Mellow Monkey says

    Azkyroth @ 29

    The amazing part about it is that I’m the only person in my family this ever happens to. No one else ever misremembers or confabulates anything. *wallpunch*

    Ugh. Yeah. Being subject to that sort of gaslighting for years is why I keep diaries and logs of all my online or text conversations. Once my partner was angry with me for months because he’d confabulated some never-actually-happened situation. I showed him our text conversations at the time of the incident to try to make him realize it wasn’t true, but nope. Totally happened. He remembered.

    And after that he continued being mad at me for a few more days over the thing that didn’t happen. Oy. Being right and having proof of being right is no help when people still trust their faulty memories.

  32. says

    Speaking of argueing about such stuff with family members, my brother would often insist that his memory was better than other people’s.

    Some interesting failures of his memory were with regards to certain dissagreements. Years after particular dissagreements, he would recall them as though he had been the one with the correct position all along (the position I remember myself argueing for), and that I was the one who had the position that I remember him having (and I’m pretty sure his positions made me question his intelligence). This happened at least 3 times but I don’t remember the specifics now.

    One of them might have been the following dissagreement we had one time: he thought it would be possible in a two player video game (Perfect Dark for N64) for one player to experience slow motion while the other player’s screen had normal speed motion. Thus, one player would have an advantage over the other. This is obviously impossible. (Unless you have an actual time dilation device, not just a video game.)

  33. twas brillig (stevem) says

    re @15:

    I sometimes get the memories of dreams confused with memories of actual events.

    I’ve heard that the brain is usually programmed to only let dreams reside in “short term memory”, while being blocked from “long term memory”. That’s why most people can only recount their dreams immediately after waking up, ask them later about their dream and the answer is usually, “I had a dream last night? ? ?” Always seemed to be reasonable that the brain would disallow dreams from getting mixed up actual event memories. But, heck, I’m no neurologist, only been a patient of neurologists and neuropsychologists, so what do I know? I don’t know………
    (I know…) didn’t Socrates tell us, “the wisest man in the world knows that he knows nothing”?

  34. says

    I sometimes get the memories of dreams confused with memories of actual events.

    Oh git, I hate it when in that grey space between being asleep and awake my brain gives me such a dream and after waking up I can’t decide whether I already had this conversation or if I needed to have this conversation. Usually some very mundane things like who’s going to get milk or something…

  35. says

    If someone is confronted with evidence that their memories are seriously faulty, the only problem would be if there was an insistence on repeating the error, or making excuses to blame others.

    Exactly! As fallible beings we are all prone to error but the true test is how we react and respond when that happens. Will we dig our heels in or will we take a step back and really re-examine ourselves?

  36. says

    One of my favorite childhood memories turned out to have been lifted whole-cloth from a book my father read me when I was a kid.

    At least it didn’t involve being shot down in a helicopter, like some people’s mistaken memories. ;)

  37. says

    I hate it when in that grey space between being asleep and awake my brain gives me such a dream and after waking up I can’t decide whether I already had this conversation or if I needed to have this conversation.

    I do that for entertainment. Often, if I’m tired, I’ll lie down and read a novel, and – as I drift in and out – the story changes and blurs into dream or gets mistaken for reality. It’s not quite as fun as eating ‘shrooms but it’s legal and inexpensive.

  38. Menyambal - not as pretentious as I seem says

    I used to get bogus, but good, memories on the edge of sleep. I would lucid dream or something, and “wake up” with real and clear memories of something that wasn’t true at all, and once I got back to reality, it felt like losing something real. I woke up once from a happy dream featuring my beloved old dog, and the dog suddenly had never existed. I was afraid to wake for fear of losing my loved ones when I awoke, so I did something to change my sleep patterns. And now I can’t remember what that was, but it worked.

    I still remember the overwhelming sense of loss and very real sadness when the dog
    disappeared. I don’t remember anything about the dog, but it must have been a good dog to wake up weeping for. Sorry, Boy.

  39. Arnaud says

    My earliest memory?
    There was a great light. And somebody hit me.

    (I think this is from one of Terry Pratchett’s…)

  40. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    A bit ranty…
    Depression largely borked my memory of late 2010 to mid 2012 to the point where I could not actually recall much of anything of that period other than frequently used technical information until ~April 2013 (mostly just a big foggy blur), and cannot really place much of any value in the recollections I regained/reconstructed since then unless they have some documentation for verification. If that was not bad enough, when I finally managed to start any treatment for the first and only time in 25 years of moderate to severe anxiety with worsening depression, the psychiatrist in late 2012 refused to accept that the mirtazapine he prescribed was directly responsible for preventing me sleeping more than an hour or so before extremely vivid dreams (bordering on ‘flashback’) and night sweats would start up and then continue to prevent bouts of more than ~30 minutes of sleep until alarm would go off. The dreams and sweats started with the first dose, and, up to that point, the only time I would consistently remember dreaming was after 10+ hours of sleep. Instead, he decided to up the dosage each visit over ~2 months until I hit 45mg. Only lasted a bit at that dosage before the lack of sleep, new bad habit (incredibly uncomfortable sweat drenched sheets led to me eventually ‘sleeping’ on floor and just showering in the morning), and no positive effect made me kinda melt down and quit it cold turkey. Night sweats completely subsided within the first couple days, but it’s been nearly two years since discontinuing and still cannot get more than ~4 hours of sleep before less vivid dreams start up and keep waking me on 30~60 minute intervals.
    So, not only can I place next to no value in my few memories of 2011~2012 and surrounding periods, but I also have occasional difficulty differentiating between actual events and remnants of the continuing semi-lucid dreams. Only slightly good thing about it all is that losing all recollection of a few video game plots makes for slightly better re-playability when bored a few years later.

  41. Onamission5 says

    My earliest memory is all in hues of a weird, sea foam green. I was laying in my crib in the kitchen of our apartment, watching my mom make food with her back to me. I asked for “baba” (bottle) and my mom told me to take a nap. Later, I woke and my sister, mom, and some guy who looked familiar were sitting down to dinner. My mom came and got me, put me in my high chair. I remember vividly looking around at all three faces, feeling the tension between them but not understanding why. I asked who he was. Someone answered that he was a friend, but I don’t know if that was my mom or my sister. End memory.

    Most of what I remember isn’t words or actions, but facial expressions and feelings. Tension, a grimace, a smile from my sister that wasn’t really a smile but worry. The sound of voices saying neutral words but with uncomfortable tones. Mom swears none of this happened. She remembers the tiny apartment where I slept next to the dinette, but not having a brown, wavy haired, bearded guy over for dinner, and says there’s no way I could remember anything from that time because I was barely over a year old. My whole childhood I believed that the man was either my mom’s friend Galen who was forever trying unsuccessfully to date her, or my biodad who was an abusive asshole, but when I asked about it, my mom had no idea what I was talking about and swears my biodad was already in jail by then.

    Then again, if it did happen but was an uncomfortable recollection for her, she’d deny it took place to her dying day, so I still don’t know what to think. I still have no idea if it is a manufactured memory or a real one.

  42. Menyambal - not as pretentious as I seem says

    I tend to use “blanked that out” to refer to parts of my life, and to resolve to not get in such situations again. And then there I am again. (Not awful traumas to repress, just bad relationships to not dwell on.) Last year somebody showed me a picture of me flirting with someone that I could not recall at all – I had spent all weekend making a cake of myself, a few years back, but couldn’t recall a bit of it. (Protip: Don’t date me.)

    My dad has the Alzheimer’s, and I am seriously trying to prep for going into that myself.

  43. pickwick says

    MattP @ 46,

    That’s rough. :( It can be pretty damn hard to describe the side-effects and communicate clearly about the general experience of living with depression meds, but when your doctor doesn’t make sure they understand what you’re going through, that’s especially rough. I hope you find/have found a better one, if you choose/have chosen to seek continued treatment. They do exist.

    When damage to such fundamentals as your memory, sleep patterns, and sleep quality lasts for years, it definitely starts to feel permanent and debilitating, but things can sometimes improve, even years later. I also graduated to a high dose of an antidepressant, though it was citalopram rather than mirtazapine, and it took place a few years before your experience. I also quit cold-turkey. All my memories of that time are literally grey and some are a bit smeared, as though someone had drizzled paint thinner across them, and for a while the world looked and felt that way. Now, though, I have better recall of the events in that period than I did while I was experiencing them, as verified by cross-referencing my notebooks with a friend who shared some classes, and the weird dreams and restless insomnia are mostly gone.

    After nine years, things inside my head aren’t “the way they were,” and maybe they never will be again, but “the way things were” wasn’t very good for me, and I’m guessing it wasn’t good for you either since you sought treatment, too. I hope things get easier for you, o MattP and any others with memory problems, and that you’re finding ways to pursue whatever goals you’ve made your own in the meantime.

  44. Rowan vet-tech says

    My earliest memories are of recurring dreams that I had from age 3 or 4, up until I was about 11. One was a flying dream, the other a really bizarre nightmare for a child that young to be having. Next memory is of standing behind my preschool teacher and reading the book along with her, and of being watched after preschool/kindergarten by my grandmother and making a dolphin out of playdoh.

    Oddly enough, pretty much all of my memories (those from yesterday, and those from 2 decades ago) are viewed in this weird simultaneous 1st person/3rd person view. I dream like that too.

  45. says

    I have one early memory, from when I was about 4 or 5, of having been playing in the hayloft of our barn with my brother, and backing onto the ladder to go down, but missing the ladder.

    Here’s where things go weird. I remember holding my brother’s hands as he hung from the edge of the hayloft where he missed the ladder, while I was still in the hayloft. I remember screaming until someone came to rescue us.

    Both parts of the memory are equally clear.

    My parents are dead. I never asked them about it.

  46. PDX_Greg says

    My sister and I both vividly remember receiving a phone call from a relative confessing that he was in jail for robbing a bank about 30 years ago. It was a shocking admission, from a person who had no history of crime — he was down on his luck and having trouble finding a job after a stint in the military. We saw him often and in fact he had been over the night before for dinner. We watched the coverage of the robbery on the news that night. Trouble is, only one of us could have answered the phone. We both recall hearing his words in his voice tell us over the phone, and bizarrely, we both recall immediately telling the other one after the call (I remember telling my sister, and she remembers telling me!). Memory is insanely unreliable.

  47. randay says

    Like a couple of commentators above, I too have lost memory of some events. Recently talking about our family with my mother, she told me that when I was a small child, my eldest uncle said something to me that apparently upset me and put me in a bad mood for a while. She said that my uncle felt bad about it and spent months trying to make up for it. I suspect it was just a bad joke I was to young to understand, but I have no memory at all of the incident.

    Also, from my university days, I had a younger cousin and a girlfriend who told about separate things we did together those many years ago that I have no memory of. Yet they are able to describe in detail what happened. There was nothing bad that happened and they told me about times we enjoyed, but I still can’t recall them no matter how much I try.

  48. jim1138 says

    I do seem to have issues with memory. I used to tell a fictional story about myself. I had discovered that people thought it funnier when I told it as if this quite plausible situation happened to me. Eventually, it seemed that it had actually occurred to me and only had a vague memory that it was fictional. This rather frightened me and I stopped telling it. Now, I don’t even remember what it was about. Probably mixed up with all the other jokes and stories I often tell.

    I also remember a vivid memory of a giraffe taking a peanut out of my hand when I was 3-4. His tongue wrapping around my arm and leaving it slimy down to my bicep. I used to tell others about this. Then, when about 20, I saw a home movie of this incident. Now, I wonder how much of that was original memory. Was it solely generated by the home movie or just reinforced? I have a number of other memories which were from the viewpoint of a home movie camera and not me. Also, a number of clear memories of an “actual” event yet denied by others; likely a vivid dream.

  49. flex says

    About a decade ago I significantly reduced the number of photographs I took.

    The reason was because I found that after seeing the photographs a couple dozen times of one of the trips I’ve taken, I no longer easily remembered the trip but instead remembered the photographs of the trip.

    It was rather strange to find that when recalling the details of a trip, I immediately recalled scenes which I had photographed rather than the events I really enjoyed but didn’t have a camera with me at the time.

    Since I’ve started taking less photos, I’ve found that I recall (with all the miss-representation that this entails) the overall experiences of the trip easier. I think it’s at least partially because I am not refreshing the memory of specific events which were photographed.

    Memory is a tricky thing.

  50. Doug Hudson says

    Regarding the memories of “alien abduction” and what not (and closely linked to memory) is “sleep paralysis”. This occurs when the conscious mind more or less wakes up but the body does not–the muscles are still held in the paralysis that keeps us from moving while dreaming. Usually the person falls back asleep, then wakes normally.

    Sleep paralysis is terrifying enough by itself, but a very common, almost universal side effect is the sensation of a hostile or evil presence threatening the person. Having experienced this myself, I can attest that I felt that a dreadful, inhuman evil was directly behind me. As it happens, I was already familiar with sleep paralysis; if I hadn’t been, I could easily see myself thinking it was an alien or supernatural encounter.

    Anyway, sleep paralysis seems like a reasonable explanation for many “alien abduction” or “demonic encounter” stories, especially since the existence of the phenomenon isn’t well known.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that there are no experimentally confirmed cases of eidetic memory in adults, and even in children, the evidence is unclear, at best. It can’t be a counterexample of the phenomenon doesn’t exist.

    Concerning semantic memory as opposed to episodic memory, I know two people… one automatically remembers on which page, and even where on the page, he read something – even though he hasn’t stored a complete image of the page in his memory, so he still needs to look it up to quote it in context, he just finds it more quickly than other people –; the other one does store a complete image of the page, leading to interesting issues with learning vocabulary when the words aren’t presented in the same order, as far as I’ve understood.

    I’m about 90% convinced that there is some actual thing that’s happening there that’s the same in the great majority of those cases (i.e., they’re not just making it up or confabulating it, they genuinely did have the experience they are relating) I wouldn’t care to hazard a claim as to what causes that experience

    Sleep paralysis.

    I had that once. Didn’t involve any abduction, Jesus or aliens, but was a terrifying experience that seemed completely real, with a completely convincing auditory hallucination as opposed to the quiet of a dream. Just as confused as a dream, though.

    I’ve heard that the brain is usually programmed to only let dreams reside in “short term memory”, while being blocked from “long term memory”. That’s why most people can only recount their dreams immediately after waking up, ask them later about their dream and the answer is usually, “I had a dream last night? ? ?”

    I do often remember dreams again when I go back to bed in the evening, because I’ve made an association between that dream and being in bed. …That means I remember barely more than the existence of the dream, because my dreams are extremely chaotic. They’re no easier to remember than a book without a remotely coherent plot. :-) This may also be why I sometimes think I remember something (always semantic, never episodic), can’t find evidence for it right away, conclude I must have dreamt it, and then find the evidence. The only cases I can think of where I misremembered dreams as reality happened in dreams.

    Often, if I’m tired, I’ll lie down and read a novel, and – as I drift in and out – the story changes and blurs into dream or gets mistaken for reality.

    Oh, that. That happens to me when I fall asleep during a talk at a conference (or, earlier, during a university course). It’s very annoying to miss a lot of what the presenter says and mix the rest with made-up confusion.

    my bicep

    Pet peeve alert! Biceps, “double-headed”, is the singular. The plural would be bicipites.

  52. tbp1 says

    Just a minor example: friends of ours used to tell an anecdote about a cute thing one of their kids said. My wife thinks that we were present when the kid said it. I think we just know about it from being told by our friends. We are each utterly convinced that we are right.

  53. scienceavenger says

    All you have to do to demonstrate to yourself how inexact your memories are is to pull up videos of whatever event you think you remember super well. Whether it is old TV shows you watched as a kid, or political, or sporting events that you swear you remember exactly, you are not only going to find it to be very inexact, sometimes there is very little resemblence.

  54. says

    Doug Hudson, David Marjanović
    I am aware of that phenomenon, and it certainly accounts for one common type of ‘abduction experience’, but there are many reports which do not fit that pattern, by occurring far from a place and time that sleep was likely, among other reasons.

  55. Doug Hudson says

    Dalillama, Schmott Guy @ 60, I would say that in addition to explaining a fair number of the abduction cases, sleep paralysis provides an example of a mechanism by which the human mind can create powerful hallucinatory effects, without any outside factors (mind-altering drugs, sleep deprivation, etc.) It is not implausible that the brain could do something like this under different circumstances, which, when combined with the human instinct to find patterns in events, and the unreliability of human memory, could easily produce very convincing “alien abduction” accounts.

    Given the complexity of the human brain, and the enormous challenges in interpreting raw sensory data into something comprehensible, its not surprising that sometimes our brains pull weird shit like sleep paralysis–frankly, I’m amazed that we don’t hallucinate more often. (Unless, of course, I’m hallucinating right now. Heh.)

  56. says

    Doug Hudson

    It is not implausible that the brain could do something like this under different circumstances, which, when combined with the human instinct to find patterns in events, and the unreliability of human memory, could easily produce very convincing “alien abduction” accounts

    Quite. I simply haven’t enough information to specifically say what circumstance trigger that type of thing other than sleep paralysis, but given the level of detail conserved across such experiences (and predating the ‘aliens’ bit as well; there’s a whole lot of similarities between modern alien abductions and historical faerie abductions, for instance), I am inclined to suppose that it is a specific circumstance/phenomenon. I have encountered the hypothesis that the trigger for the hallucinations is an effect of some type of electromagnetic flux operating in a manner akin to the so-called ‘god helmet’, but the irreproducibility of that effect militates against that explanation.

  57. Doug Hudson says

    Dalillama, Schmott Guy @ 62, I think perhaps the “event”, shall we say, is triggered by a combination of different factors, some internal (stress), some possibly external. This combination doesn’t happen very often (since these “events” appear to be be relatively rare), and the specific factors may vary from person to person. Unfortunately, the seeming randomness, combined with the misinterpretation of the “event” by the subjects, makes it extremely difficult to identify the triggers.

    Personally, I think more research on sleep paralysis could be productive–if we could identify what causes that, and (possibly) induce it artificially, it could provide invaluable information about these other “events”.

    Another possible approach would be with the “religious” part of the brain–there are studies that seem to suggest that tendency to religious belief and religious experiences may be linked to a particular part of the brain. It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between that part of the brain and the “alien abduction” experiences.

    Anyway, it’s a fascinating area of research, almost makes me wish I was a neurologist. Instead, all I can do is speculate, which is kind of fruitless (but fun).

  58. says

    My earliest memory is a broken, extended memory of a trip from Tucson to Wichita my mother and I took when (according to my parents) I was two. My dad worked for Learjet and somehow wangled us a flight; I remember many details, most of which were confirmed by my parents, but I’m still sure (since I was so young) at least some of it is confabulated, possibly unintentionally by my parents in response to my questions (“Hey, did that Learjet I flew have sideways seats?” “Yeah, probably.”) I remember remembering it (if that makes sense) at quite a young age.

  59. Dark Jaguar says

    Yep that’s all true, for everyone but me. I’m special. My mommy told me so. Hell, everyone did, because in the 80’s everyone was special.

    Everyone in this thread, deep down, thinks that though, on a lizard brain level. Next time you get in an argument with your parents about whether or not some terrible thing happened to you as a kid, I mean, think about that for a second.

    To this day, I’ve no idea just how long I was locked outside (rest of the story omitted, so your imagination can make it out to be as terrible as possible, you monsters), because my memories of that event differ ever so much from my parents.

    …That video is an interesting story, but wow do I HATE that animation. It’s that sort of hipster “trendy” bad art that was also popular in school house rock, where it looks bad, but like, on purpose? I dunno, I just don’t like it.