Author of Pieces of Light
Most of us believe our memories are fixed, like snapshots in our own personal scrapbooks. But in his latest book, Pieces of Light, award-winning author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough points to research that shows our minds revise memories with every recall. DISCOVER associate editor Gemma Tarlach talked to Fernyhough about the mutability of memories—and whether we’ll ever remember things as they really happened.
What reaction do people have to learning memories are not carved in stone?
Some people respond, “Who’s this guy to tell us we’re wrong?” But we don’t get the past wrong wholesale. We just mash up parts that don’t necessarily go together.
Since researching Pieces of Light, do you find yourself more aware of your own memory processing?
I think I’m more skeptical and more inclined to take my memories with a pinch of salt.
So many moments of our lives are chronicled in social media and with cell phones now. Does this impact forming or retrieving memories?
It’s fascinating, particularly for the younger generation. I can’t believe it won’t have an effect, but it may be difficult to prove scientifically. I think it’s the ubiquity of these images that will impact how memories form. I don’t think people look at photographs the way they used to, for example, when they were precious and you had to wait to get them back [from the developer].
What advice would you give to people who want to have more accurate memories?
Pay attention to different things, to things that might make the memory stick more. Watching X Factor the other night, I saw one of the singers standing in the audience, right next to a man who was recording it. How many times do we see that? People recording, but not experiencing the moment. We need to experience the totality of the moment. Who am I with? What are the sights and smells? You will probably encode the memory more fully if you’re more aware of its totality.
Will evidence pointing to the fallibility of our memories ever overcome our own desire to believe that we’re remembering things exactly as they happened?
I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want it to. We have an idea of who we are—that shapes our memories, and it distorts them. But that’s part of the science of the self.