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Does reality really lie in our memories?

How many times have we seen on TV a police line up where a witness needs to recognise whether one of those present was the one guilty? and how many times have we seen him doubt? How many versions of the same accident can there be? because how many people can say they have a clear memory of a traumatic event?

All these pretty absurd questions since we believe we can trust in our memories, in that they are a reliable copy of the past we’ve lived, even more so the more intense the experience, but how true is that belief?

Are memories really like a picture of the past?

There are studies that show that is possible to implant fake memories and it’s even been shown that people get to take them on as their own, without a doubt. For more information on this very interesting topic I recommend the work of the cognitive psychologist E.Loftus.

Today, however, what I want to discuss is an article written by Oliver Sacks, neurologist, author of books as famous as “The man that mistook his wife for a hat”, where he describes case studies of brain lesioned patients -very recommendable-. The article I refer to deals precisely with this mishappens of memory and how they affect to the creative process in artist taking sometimes even, unintentionaly to plagiarism.

What Sacks purports from the point of view of a personal childhood anecdote of an experience he actually didn’t live but that he remembers as his own is that everything we see, read, and experience…belongs to our personal memory record regardless or whether in origin those ideas or experiences were really ours, therefore after some time we wouldn’t be able to tell whether that idea we propose it’s something we heard somewhere or is really a product of our imagination.

I find his approach very interesting, specially since this is a situation we encounter every day: in bosses that seem to take pride on our ideas without acknowledging us, in plagiarism in art and literature…And it is so because if it is so difficult to draw the line between what’s ours and anybody else’s, where’s the real thing? what’s inspiration? what plagiarism?

Another topic Sacks discusses is the reason why this ability of our brain to assimilate memories, indistinguisable be it functionally (an fMRI scanner would not manage to see any differences between the recollection of a fake versus a real memory) or from the experience side. It is, he claims -and I quite agree- because remembering the source of all knowledge and/or experience we acquire in life is simply too much, on top of unnecessary, and therefore forgotten.

Two problems to this, specially for me. Apart from the obvious fear of plagiarism -even self-made-, in science every argument must be supported by a reference to a publication, and therefore to its author. If you’re like me, and have problems remembering even the name of your coworkers, let alone authors or titles of movies/music and of course papers, you are literally screwed. Unless your field only includes three or four big names 😉

I strongly recommend a read of Sacks’ piece. It is long, but it is worth the effort. Because what if he’s right and we are nothing but -unconscious- replicants?

2 thoughts on “Does reality really lie in our memories?

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