Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Fragility of Memory

Originally posted on June 29, 2008

Evidence continues to accumulate regarding the fragility of memory. Beyond the scandal of the “recovered memory syndrome” around 1992 and other ways that distortions of memory have been used (or probably mis-used) in many kinds of legal proceedings, attention to this problem is an important corrective in our tendencies to give more authority to certain mental functions than they truly merit.

For example, a few months ago I participated in some email exchanges with some friends, one of whom cited the quotation that said, “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” This was attributed to a Pastor Neimoller in Germany, recalling his experience with the Nazi Regime in the 1930s and 1940s. It turns out that there are a number of different versions of this! See website:

I find this scholarly analysis fascinating because it shows how a quote or saying can get changed, distorted, run through so many variations. I had also encountered a similar  problem with the quotation, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,” which has been attributed to a range of people, from the philosopher Blaise Pascal or the ancient Greek, Epimenides, to St. Augustine and many others.

Perhaps much of history is more like the parlor game of “telephone,” in which, with at least six people in a circle (it works better with 12 to 15 people), a phrase is whispered into one person’s ear, and they pass that message along by whispering into their neighbor’s ear. What finally is spoken out loud at the end is often amusingly quite different from the original message.

My friend Ed W. Hug responded, “Yes, it is very much like the children’s “telephone” game. I used to call it “Russian Telephones”, but it’s the same thing. Interestingly it also relates to the neurological idea of “memory reconsolidation” (see Claude LeDoux and others). The basic idea is that we never remember an actual past event, but always we remember the last time we remembered it. So a memory is generally a long sequence of re-remembering, at each stage of which little distortions can creep in. And these distortions are not without a bias, favoring certain archetypal patterns that correspond to memory predilections that we, as individuals, hold in common with our family / tribe / culture / civilization.

Freud also recognized this internal “Russian telephones” thing that goes on in the mind. To quote from my “Neuroscience Perspective on Psychodrama”: “Freud (in his letter to Fleiss December 6 1896) used the word “nachträglichkeit” (afterwardsness) to describe a process in which memory is not isomorphic with experience but laid down many times during successive developmental epochs, for each of which a new transcription takes place.”

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