Friday, September 21, 2012


All our memories are reconstructed memories. They are the product of what we originally experienced and everything that's happened afterwards.  In the TED talk above, forensic psychologist Scott Fraser suggests that even eyewitnesses to a crime create "memories" they could not have seen. Why? Because the brain abhors a vacuum, and reconstructs memories to fill the gaps.

"Reconstructed memories" are the product of our mind, and are conditioned by our opinions and experiences, from our preferences and our prejudices.  They are similar to what linguists call schema, to what the Buddha called sanskara.  Fraser emphasizes that we are totally unaware of the reconstruction of memories as it's a subconscious process.  Similarly, the Buddha taught that sanskara, sometimes translated as "mental formations," arise out of ignorance, that is, their creation is beyond our cognition.

According to a recent study by Northwestern Medicine study, every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but instead what you remembered the previous time you accessed that memory.

I can see this in my own experience, as you probably can as well.  When I try to recall my very earliest childhood memories, two images come to mind: in one, I am riding in a motorboat with my parents; my father is driving and my mother is holding a blanket above my head to protect me from the spray.  In another, I am sitting on the dirty clothes hamper in the bathroom telling my father the imaginative, made-up stories of a child as he's shaving in the morning getting ready for work.  Yet when I look carefully at these memories, I realize that I don't really remember the actual experiences; they feel different than my vivid memories of recent events.  What I'm actually remembering are the stories, and the telling of the stories to myself and to my parents and others over the many years of my life.  In other words, I don't remember the events, I only remember the later story.

Here's another example: immediately after I graduated from high school, my family and I moved to another town in another state, and I quickly fell out of touch with all of my high school friends.  In the new town, I never reminisced about the high school faculty, since none of my new friends in the new town went to my old school and were therefore totally uninterested in stories that didn't involve them.  But after a few years had passed, I coincidentally met someone a few years older than I who had gone to the same high school, and he started regaling me with his stories about specific teachers, the administrators, oddities of the school, and so on.

Here's the strange thing, though: I couldn't remember a bit of it myself, and his stories, just a few years after I had graduated, sounded as alien to me as they would have to one of my new friends in the new town.  When he asked me what the name was of that math teacher with the buzz-cut and bushy eyebrows, I not only couldn't remember the name, I couldn't even summon a memory of the person he was asking me about.  Even to this day, I now remember that name, Mr. Michaels, not from my first-hand experience but from that later conversation.  I asked him how he remembered all of this, and he looked at me strangely and asked, "How could anyone  ever forget a weird cat like Mr. Michaels?"

Since I hadn't accessed those memories for a couple of years or so, they had disappeared like a short-term memory, as if the names of the high school faculty were no different than a random telephone number being transferred from a telephone book to the touch pad of a phone.  To be sure, memories of my friends, of teenage crushes and sweethearts, of adolescent adventures and escapades, still seem vivid to this day, but my memory of things that didn't interest me as much (e.g., the faculty) are gone, except for the memory of being told what I had forgotten.  And the recent Northwestern study suggests that even that memory is really just a "memory of memories," a memory of the story that I tell to myself, and not a recollection of the conversation itself.

It occurs to me as I write this that one of the reasons for the human mind to constantly engage itself in an internal monologue, that reason that we mentally talk to ourselves all the time, is to maintain the storehouse of  these memories, to exercise the neural network that supports our schema, our sanskara, and thus continue to give rise to consciousness, to our perception of an ego-self.

Scott Fraser emphasizes the legal and practical implications of reliance on reconstructed memories.  The Buddha taught that consciousness arises from sanskara, from these reconstructed memories, and if we identify with our consciousness, our definition of our self is based on a very unreliable witness.

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