1.11 anubhuta vishaya asampramoshah smritih
Recollection or memory (smriti) is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources. —www.swamij.com translation
Lots of us live under the delusion that our memories are faithful recorders of the perceptible world around us. We record what we saw, or heard or in some sense witnessed and at a later point in time, we can recall those details at will. Sure, memories fade with time, but for the really big events, we remember them like they happened yesterday, in all their Technicolor glory.
Let me disabuse you of that notion right now. Our minds are not video recorders. Memories are things that we construct and there are scads of places where memory can get gibbled up. Our emotional state affects the veracity of our memories. We often remember what we expect to remember. Classic case of this phenomenon is people recounting their witness testimony of a motor vehicle accident. Witnesses will swear up hill and down dale that there was a stop sign at the intersection and the red Cavalier went through it without stopping (thus causing the accident). Photographs of the scene, when examined later, will show that some dastardly nimrod removed said stop sign in the middle of the night. All these people who ‘remember’ the stop sign in their visual recollection aren’t lying. There’s no malice at work. Literally, their brain said “Oh, should be a stop sign in that picture, I’ll just add one.” And, voila, they remember the stop sign that wasn’t there.
It reminds me of an example I read about once, an experiment that was done with kindergarten and Grade 1 age students and it highlights the issue. In this experiment, an actor dressed in a business suit, walked into a classroom and just stood there. He was videotaped and it’s confirmed that he had no social interaction with any of the children. He didn’t speak with them nor did he make any gestures towards them. After a brief period, five or ten minutes, he exited the classroom.
A week later, the teacher who is an accomplice in this experiment, asks the children about the visit of Mr Smith the week before. She asks them if they remember Mr Smith tearing the phone book in half. Some of the children do “remember” this while others don’t. It’s important to note that the original actor, Mr Smith, did nothing of the sort.
Several weeks later, when the children are again questioned about Mr Smith’s visit, more of them remember him tearing the phone book in half. They also remember him flying around the room, throwing someone out the window and turning into a dog.
I have always believed that the “satanic child abuse” hysteria in the 1980s was manufactured by the interviewing techniques. A number of child-care workers were investigated (and more than a few convicted) of horrific crimes against children, up to and including ritual homicide. The prosecution of these offences hinged on the memories of young children, deemed to be too young to have cooked up these stories and that made the adults ‘guilty’ of some monstrous (and frankly fantastic) acts. It’s important to note that these children were NOT lying. This is just a vivid (and horrific) lesson in how powerful and illusive memory can be. We can remember imagined events just as powerfully as we remember ‘real’ events.
Today, largely out of these experiences, guidelines for police interviews of young children have been changed to reflect our knowledge of how memories can be manufactured. There are very strict guidelines under which a child can be interviewed, including length of interview, time, availability of a parent, etc. In the original cases, the witness children had frequently been questioned for hours at a time and like a lot of ‘good kids’, they had a need to please authority. That need, coupled with fatigue, sometimes hunger, and separation from their parents, often resulted in some wild stories that the children thought pleased the interviewer.
In my career as a 9-1-1 operator, I unfortunately received several calls from a distraught parent who had just discovered that her child had been sexually abused, inevitably by someone she trusted. The protocol was to comfort as much as possible while the regular police patrol attended. I used to stress the importance of not talking to the child about the details of the occurrence because unless someone is trained on how to ask these kinds of questions of young children, it’s easy to plant the seeds of false memories. In most cases, the patrol officer would take a statement from the parent(s) but the interview of the child would be the responsibility of someone specially trained in that detail.
The point here is that memory is one of the important functions of our mind. It’s a powerful way of knowing that we frequently overlook for its very familiarity. Like all the other sources of knowledge that Patanjali listed, it has to be used wisely and with a certain level of discernment. The more we appreciated both the wonder of our memory and its potential shortcomings, the more faithful a servant it can be. It’s when we don’t appreciate where memory can be tainted that it can be problematic.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,