Good Morning Ted and Jody:
Yesterday in my talk with my psychologist, she told me that every time we access a memory we change it-actually the brain by access it changes it ever so slightly. So, our fondest memories, the ones we go back to time and time again, are severely modified. I want to say changed, but it hurts to think that all those fond memories are “massaged” by use into their current state.
Recently my friend Pete and I had an email exchange in which he asserted that summers in the past, when he was a child, were warmer, milder and drier than summers are today. Now, we could go back and check the weather reports from back then (yes even in my youth they kept records, and he is younger than I), but let’s take it at face value and assume my psychologist is right that by accessing our memories, we change them. So, Pete has changed his experience from childhood by holding fond memories of it.
Two days ago, I was at the head of my drive, going to try to take a photograph of the color potential as the sun went down. A blue van went past at the speed limit, about 35 miles per hour. Just a split second before the van got to the next drive a fawn, ½ grown deer, bolted across the road in front of the van. The fawn did not quite make it. The van struck it in the rear hind quarters (I am inferring from what followed) spinning the fawn in a horizontal cartwheel. The fawn landed on its side in a burst of dust kicked up from its landing and its immediate getting to its feet and bursting into the woods. Right behind the fawn, its sibling took off across the road, behind the van, and followed the first into the woods. Then, the doe, came from literally next to my car and followed both into the woods. Then van pulled over within a few yards of where it struck the fawn. I left my drive and pulled up next to the van to inquire as to the driver’s, a young woman, well-being. She was shaken but said, she only needed a moment to try to get her heart rate into something resembling a normal rate. I drove off to shoot the sunset.
Now, I have played the scene of the fawn’s movements, before and after it was struck by the van in my mind many time since then. This is not a fond memory. Rather it is one that makes me cringe. So, I need to ask my psychologist if we change these kinds of memories too. Does accessing a horrible event make it more horrible, less horrible, or something other than horrible. I still cringe as the memory of that fawn flying through the air in a horizontal cartwheel. So, at this juncture it is still horrible. I do think it has more of the unpleasantness than the actual witnessing of the event. When I watched this happen, my first thoughts were surprise and concern for the other fawn and their mother as they bolted across the street too. However, in my memory, I know what is going to happen as the scene plays out and it is with horror that I watch. It should be interesting to see, if I remember, to read this letter again in five years and see what has happened to my memory of the event in comparison to this telling of the event (from a short-time memory of it after only a few memory accesses).
A final concern on changing memory as one access it over and over again, is how is this related to learning? Learning, to be very general and oversimplify, is impressing some synapse connections in the brain so that a secure connection is made—mostly we learn by repetition. As students learning something new we used techniques of writing something down 100 times or reciting it from flash cards over and over until we could nail it on an exam. Or we did multiple problems to learn the technique of division. Or, we drew diagrams/cells/maps over and over until we could literally draw them in our sleep. I particularly recall learning the Bill of Rights one amendment at a time until I could quote them on demand. Now, if my psychologist is right, by accessing those memories (after all, learning is a form of forcing a memory in one’s brain) am I changing the Bill of Rights? In a weird sort of way, I could be. For example, most people in America believe they have a right to have a gun under the Second Amendment. Indeed, the courts seem to agree with them. However, most Americans would not remember that the Second Amendment starts with the words “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State . . ” Most people only remember the part about “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” So, for most people the accessing of their memory of their right to bear arms is unfettered and unqualified by any of the first thirteen words in that Amendment. So, even the presence of the written word does not seem to stop our modifying memories by accessing them over and over again.
The only real glitch in my psychologist’s statement is the fact that all the stuff we learned in school is subject to one immutable law—use it or lose it. Simply put, I once knew how to do a liner regression by hand from raw data (OK, I had help from a Marchant Calculator, pencil and spreadsheet). I cannot do one today. It has been too long. If we don’t access memories of things we learned in school, we lose that knowledge (a memory). So, a paradox, if we don’t access our learning (memories) and subject them to change, we lose them. Memory then turns out to be a very slippery subject. It is a question of whether one wants to change one’s memories by accessing them or lose one’s memories by not changing them. Or, I may be taking what she said too literally.
Warmest regards, Ed