Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why Old People Remember Better [T, 5-22-18]

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections and Stories on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter… Why Old People Remember Better [T, 5-22-18]

Recently [R, 5-17-18] I wrote here of my memories of Aunt Dorothy, my mother’s younger sister. [Mother was 5th of 9 children and Dorothy 6th.] In that column, I mentioned how some of my memory was not accurate, especially the things I had been told about Mother’s family, rather than those I experienced myself.

It’s probably a misleading distinction—between “heard” and “experienced”—because, as we shall see, sometimes “memories” we did not experience can be even more memorable than those we were there for.

In my column on Aunt Dorothy, I mentioned that her mother, my Grandma Pond, was especially hard on Dorothy, more so than any of her other children. I speculated that it might be because she came next after Margery, who died in infancy, and Grandma was still upset about Margery’s death, and resented Dorothy for taking her place.

I learned about Margery’s death and about Grandma’s harsh treatment of Dorothy from my mother, who cried each time she talked about Margery. I had always thought Mother was fourth in the birth order of the nine Pond children, and Margery was fifth. I felt sorry for Mother as the little girl who experienced her little sister’s death.

But checking the records, I learned that Margery was 4th in birth order and Mother was 5th. She knew about Margery and her death only by hearing about it. On top of that, Mother and her brother, Jesse, both came along after Margery before Dorothy did, so all my arm-chair psychology about why Grandma treated Dorothy meanly was just poppycock.

In recent years, much of my non-fiction reading has been in brain science [and anything, of course, by my niece Kira Vermond, Canada’s leading writer of non-fiction books for kids, and also Canada’s leading newspaper writer about finance, travel, etc. We won’t mention that she broke in by writing the jacket blurbs for Harlequin romance novels.]

I don’t read original brain research stuff, of course. I live a couple of miles from a major university library, so I would have no trouble getting hold of the “Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science,” but I am more comfortable with popularizers like Daniel Schachter, Malcolm Gladwell, Michio Kaku, Oliver Sacks, et al. So if you are a brain researcher, and have half a brain [especially the left side], you won’t ask me to critique your research.

From the scholars, I have learned that no memory is actually a memory. It’s not like a photograph or video that is exactly the same each time we open the album or run it on the projection screen. It is a story that we retell each time out of pieces that are scattered throughout our brains. We reconstruct it each time, and since the most recent time we did so, we have had experiences that cause us to interpret it differently, and so, quite possibly, tell/remember it differently.

Interestingly, the false stories we tell—false memories that we have created out of desire or that have been implanted by others—use the same neural pathways that “real” memories do. In other words, even if a brain researcher could see into our brains, s/he could not tell if the memory is factual or non-factual. In the brain, they look the same.

That explains why lie detectors are not admissible evidence; it’s possible to believe in a non-factual memory so completely that you come across as truthful. Sacks says, “Our only memories are narrative.”

One of the great thigs about being really old is that all our stories are completely true, because we believe them. [Also there’s no one left alive to dispute our version of them.]


Oliver Sacks, speaking as an experimental neurologist, in The River of Consciousness, p 121, says, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually re-categorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory…”

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