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Are You Lying About Your Past? You Might Be Without Realizing It

Our memories work in strange ways. You may have imagined part of your past.


This story is excerpted from the podcast Build For Tomorrow, and explores why we become nostalgic for difficult times. Listen to the entire thing here or below.

Ezra Bailey | Getty Images

We all tell stories about ourselves. But how true are those stories?

The answer is… not as true as we think. I tell false stories about myself. You do too. But is this a problem?

Leading researchers say no. You're off the hook!

Well, sort of.

First, let's understand how memory works

We don't remember whole experiences, the way a video camera could capture them. We actually remember things in tiny, separate fragments — like a memory broken into a million pieces and scattered throughout our brain. Every time we try to recollect something, our brains reassemble the pieces on the fly. Some stuff gets lost. Some was never stored. This means our memory is incomplete — like a puzzle that can't be completed.

How do we fill in the gaps? We literally imagine whatever's missing.

"Memory and are profoundly intertwined," says Felipe De Brigard, a memory researcher at Duke University. "Many of the processes that enable us to remember the past are also processes that enable us to imagine not only possible futures, but enable us to imagine alternative ways in which past events could have occurred."

This is why you're so sure about a detail from last summer that your friends tell you is wrong. You literally imagined it. Now you're experiencing it as a memory.

And it gets weirder! Because here's another thing we tend to imagine:

We imagine our own pasts

"When people think about themselves over time, they think about this positive march forward into a continually improving self, says Anne E. Wilson, a memory researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University.

I do this. I'm sure you do this. We tend to think about our older selves as less competent and perhaps less happy. We were facing struggles back then. We strived. We improved.

But when researchers follow people over long periods of time, they don't see that "continually improving self." They see something far less dramatic.

"If you compare how people actually are contemporaneously over a number of periods of time, and what they recall for those periods of time, people tend to shift their past downwards," Anne says. "A lot of the improvement they recall is remembered improvement."

In other words, we remember our pasts as somehow harder or less satisfying, because we want to build a narrative of ourselves as progressing and growing. But this isn't memory. It's imagination — a narrative we want to believe, layered on top of what we actually lived.

When Anne told me this, it hit me personally. Because here's the thing: I am interviewed a lot, and I tell a lot of stories about myself, and I have honed these stories very well, and I sometimes wonder how true they even are anymore.

For example, I often tell the story about my first job, which was as a reporter at a tiny newspaper in central Massachusetts called The Gardner News. I hated that job. It was small and frustrating, and I aspired to work at the biggest papers in the country. So after a year, I had a realization: Nobody at the New York Times or Washington Post would ever, ever pick up a copy my tiny paper and read my story about the local diner and then call me up and say, "Kid, pack your bags, we're bringing you up to the big leagues!" Like, never. So I realized, I couldn't keep working there and waiting for someone to discover me. I had to go to them. And so I did. I quit the job, I sat in my bedroom in a cheap apartment next to a graveyard, and I cold-pitched for nine months until I landed my first story at the Washington Post, and I grew my career from there, and it taught me a lesson I've carried through to this day: Don't wait. Go to them.

So anyway. I have told a version of that story so many times — but how true is it? I mean, there are parts you can factcheck. I did quit that job. I did freelance out of my bedroom. I did land that Post story. But did I have that thought — they won't come to me so I have to go to them? Did I ever say that back then, or even think it? Or did I just quit that job because I was miserable and it paid me $20,000 a year, so it's not like I was taking a big risk, and it's only later, when I try to make sense of a random series of earlier events, that I crafted a story on top of it?

The answer is… I honestly do not know. I've told the story so many times that there is no other story to tell. There is no other memory in my brain to uncover.

So I asked Anne, what have I done to myself?

She said not to worry. Should we strive for truth? Yes. But we must accept the limitations of our memory — and the purpose of those limitations.

"It may be that part of the reason that our memory for the past is so imperfect," she said, "is because it needs to be malleable. Because if it's malleable, then it allows us to creatively use those same building blocks and reshape them into this future that we want to be able to imagine."

The future matters — we are building for tomorrow! — and we need maximum flexibility to shape it. Biologically speaking, it wouldn't make sense for our brains to completely limit our future options based on our past experiences. We'd never learn anything. We'd never take a risk. We'd never say, "I failed 10 times before, but this time is going to work." We need this flexibility; we need to tell ourselves the stories that keep us going.

We are built for the future. Even if we're not so sure about our past.

Want more? Listen to this podcast episode about why our memories are unreliable, and how that leads people to be nostalgic for Covid.

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