In the current newsstand edition of Psychology Today we are taken back to the theme of how valid are our memories.
Two main categories of investigative commentary emerge:
- Recalling vivid episodes from the past, the further back the more effective, can provide benefits to our lives now
- Sensory based recollections have the best chance of being accurate, given the challenge in general of being true
One is reminded of the concept of ‘hindsight bias’, that is, knowing how things turned out changes our memory of how things seemed at the time. Investors looking back at periods, or even dramatic days, of high – which is to say negative – stock market volatility (as in October 1987 and late 2008/early 2009), will likely do so feeling less doom and gloom than they felt in real time.
Take away the lurking overhang of stress concomitant with monetary issues, and one is left mainly with nostalgia.
Happily, nostalgia itself can be beneficial.
Since it’s social in nature, nostalgia fosters “feelings of connection to other people”. This inferred social support in turn enhances positive feelings, including energy, self-esteem, and optimism. Participants in research have “claimed higher levels of inspiration and motivation to tackle goals”; such memories also sharpen one’s ‘creative edge’. Feeling confident in one’s ‘social ability’ means that handling disagreements is improved, given a self-assurance of being able to deal with it and move on.
The expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ also comes into the memory game. Photographs of places important in childhood, as in growing up, or family based, enhance the dimension of time. Scenes of random events with childhood friends, schoolmates, or the like can elicit strong impressions of moments heretofore less memorable than, say, graduations or other high profile events. The latter, though, are more likely to precipitate public, outdoor monuments; sadly, it seems those devoted to tragedy seem highest profile, perhaps because they evoke feelings both of bitter sadness and hope the event does not find itself repeated.
While odours around monuments may tend to be of the more lingering variety, strong smells in general can very much evoke nostalgia. In a 2015 study of older adults, memories triggered by scents brought back connections to one’s first ten years of life, while those triggered by words or images brought them back to their second decade.
All these lofty thoughts about accessing memories, however, need to come with a warning label: “we are often unaware of just how flawed – or even false – our recollections can be”.
- Envisioning events based on subtle suggestions by others, perhaps even family, can cause us to internalize details we didn’t actually experience
- Memory itself tends to be imperfect; it’s difficult to recall with total accuracy, which can also be clouded by emotion or distractions
- It is often difficult to differentiate between actual and false memories, especially if there is no objective capacity to verify; comparing with others is inherently flawed; the truest form of verification is ‘hard evidence’, like photographs or emails
The sarcastic anti-hero of the film Talk Radio states that, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage”. Some solid elements can trigger our memories, but whether or not we should really believe them seems like a constant uncertainty.
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