The Nature of Memory

Last night my husband and I had a disagreement as to whether or not I got mad at him and threatened his life while I was in labor with our children. I don’t remember being mad at him, and I actually don’t remember talking much while in labor. I get quiet when I’m stressed and tend not to talk. Andy agreed that I didn’t talk while I was in labor, but immediately after having Buddy I did, and I was cursing Andy’s existence.

I asked him what he was talking about, and he said that when my blood pressure dropped, I started hallucinating and cursing him.

Now let me back up. After Buddy was born his lungs had a hard time fully expanding so they took him to the NICU as a precaution. Andy left with Buddy. Sometime after that I started to get cold and was shivering. The nurse told me it was normal and wrapped me in some heated blankets. Sometime after that, though, my blood pressure started to drop.

So there I was wrapped in heated blankets and suddenly I was getting incredibly hot and feeling extremely weak. So weak that, wrapped in blankets as I was, I couldn’t even lift my arms to hit the nurse call button. I remember being ALONE, my blood pressure dropping, and getting scared that no one would notice.

Eventually the nurse came in and my blood pressure stabilized without me fainting. Life went on. That’s how I remember it at least.

Andy remembers that he was in the NICU briefly and was sent out and he returned to my room and was there when my blood pressure dropped, and that when it happened I started hallucinating. The way he describes it is like something from “The Exorcist.” Now, Andy is prone to exaggeration. And his memory of how things happen change to justify whatever point he is making. That’s the way I see it at least.

So I remember being alone when my blood pressure plummeted. Andy remembers being there and witnessing quite the show.

And, here’s the thing, we’re not going to be able to prove it one way or the other. And therein lies the fascinating thing about memory. It is highly reconstructive. Meaning that rather than pulling up a blow by blow video tape of how the event unfolded, we’re really retelling the events in our mind, making them prone to errors in the retelling process. Kind of like a game of Telephone.

We like to think of our memories as an accurate tape recording of what happened, but this is not the case, for many reasons. For one thing, how we process the information our senses are receiving may not be accurate. For instance, if I was hallucinating I might remember seeing a floating tree in the room and really it was just the funny angle I was looking at the curtains. So we may not be accurately storing what we hear, see, taste or smell in the first place.

Second we often see our memories through the lenses and biases of the present. So, let’s say Andy thinks that I was cursing his hide, hence he remembers me hallucinating when I wasn’t.

Elizabeth Loftus’ research on memory is fascinating. Yet when I read it, I can’t help but wonder if ANYTHING I remember is anywhere close to what really happened. For the most part, this doesn’t matter too much. There’s no life or death decision in the balance of whether or not I hallucinated when my blood pressure dropped after having Buddy.

Other times this helps to explain why a strange event occurred and, in attempting to explain it, people devised a supernatural explanation. This is also mostly equally harmless. But when determining a person’s innocence or guilt based solely on memory, this becomes more problematic. Think about it. Think about all of the times you remembered something one way and someone else remembered it completely different. Think about it.

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