It might seem like a strange question, except that who we are – changes over time.
Not a lot of people know that!
The environment continually shapes and changes the neural networks in our brains that make us who we are. And how we process the information reaching our brains shapes our experience of the environment!
Our memories of those life events, which shape who we are aren’t fixed though, and change every time we remember them!
Even though you are remembering the same event, your memory of it as you go through life, is quite different,. We sometimes liken our memory to a digital recording, where what comes out is a faithful reproduction of whatever you put in. But that’s not how it works. A memory is a web of particular neurons that have to fire at the same time to give you an experience of all the different elements making up that memory – what you saw, heard, felt etc etc.
So unlike a true recording, a memory is a brain state of a time in the past that essentially we have to resurrect. Maybe a similar event reminds us of that earlier time, triggering the whole web of associations – and suddenly you’re back in that memory. But it’s never quite as rich – the details fade.
How so? I hear you ask.
While it’s true that hundreds of billions of brain cells, with the quadrillion connections between them go a long way, there is still a finite amount of brainpower available for any particular task that the brain does.
And that includes memories.
Does it matter that details fade?
There’s no denying that remembering the details when you are sitting an exam on the topic is jolly handy! But when you consider that who we are is a product of our evolution, and all evolution cares about is our survival, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that evolution doesn’t give a toss about how you do in Geography A-level!
It does however assume that newer information is more useful than older, and automatically lets go of older information, and extraordinarily quickly too. It’s reckoned (and I bet many of you will relate to this) that you’ll have forgotten roughly 80% of whatever you learn today, by tomorrow.
Fortunately there are easy things you can do, to help your brain learn efficiently, and maybe more to the point, retain what, let’s face it, you’ve gone to some considerable effort to learn.
Back to the plot… Despite what we believe about it, and because we actually have to recreate a memory ourselves – not only does that memory change over time, and also according to how we’re feeling – but it’s likely to differ from other people’s memories of exactly the same event!
Now, that’s definitely something I have experienced.
While travelling together in her car, a friend and I witnessed a slow and gentle, car prang a little way in front of us. Everyone was absolutely fine, but we discovered while discussing it afterwards, that the pair of us had completely different accounts of what had happened!
Fine witnesses we’d have made!
Actually – it’s perfectly normal for witnesses to have varying accounts of an event, and in fact, the police are suspicious of fabrication when reports are too similar!
There’s a tip for any criminals reading this!