Thursday, November 16, 2017

"The Unreliable Narrator"

When you are in my line of endeavor, the possibility kind of shakes you to the core. 

Studies about memory suggest that you can make a person remember things that, in fact, never actually took place. 

Apparently, the brain has the ability to recall things one – for some reason or another – believes to have had occurred, that, in factual reality, did not.

Hm.  Given this understanding, should this blog more correctly be retitled,

“Just Wishful Thinking”?

We are talking about my blogatorial reputation here.  I tell stories from my past I purport to be biographically truthful.

But what if they aren’t?  And I am, in fact, not the assiduous memoirist I think I am but am instead – a racket often disparaged in this venue…

… a masquerading fiction writer?  (The withering “curled lip” to be inferred, but this time, directed at myself.)    

Not long ago, I heard a researcher on NPR radio – I just wrote “National Public Radio Radio” but I am not going back – whose area of investigation concerned the installing of inaccurate memories into an unsuspecting subject’s consciousness.  Why would you want to do that?  Well – one possible circumstance – to enhance the unsuspecting subject’s self-esteem.

Example (with humorous complications, but it’s still a viable example):      


“Hey, Ted.  You know that girl Cindy you had a crush on in high school but never approached?  Well, I ran into her the other day and she admitted that, back then, she’d had a crush on you.”

“’She did?” 

“Yeah.  She said she thought you were cute.”

“I can’t believe it.  She actually thought I was cute.  Hey, it’s not too late.  I’m going to look Cindy up and…”

“You know what?  Just think of yourself as handsome, and leave it at that.”

And from then on, Ted does.  Because Cindy had told somebody he was cute. 

Except she hadn’t.  It was a totally fabricated, surreptitiously implanted, “Confidence Inducer.” 

The NPR researcher admitted she was skeptical such a reported phenomenon was real.  Then, in the course of her experimenting, she recalled a similar situation – though in the other direction – involving herself.

Once, as an adult, the researcher had attended a family gathering.  She had always known that her mother had died in a swimming pool accident.  But now, a family member confided to her that, as a child, it had been the researcher who had discovered her dead mother’s body.

The research was flabbergasted by this revelation.  But she eventually came to believe it.  Suddenly, everything changed.  Her entire perspective was now reflected through the shattering prism of, “I found my mother’s lifeless body floating in the swimming pool.”

A few days later, the family member called her and said, “I just found out.  It wasn’t you who found your mother.  It was somebody else.”

Okay, first thing.  That family member is not getting invited to Thanksgiving dinner.   

Still, there it was.  A personalized example of exactly what she was researching.  The event had never actually taken place.  But a conversation with a misguided family member had her behaving as if it had.

After hearing her story, I remained less than persuaded by this phenomenon.  How can your brain so easily mislead you like that?  And then…

It happened to me.

I was flipping around the channels, when I encountered the tail end of an episode of M*A*S*H, the one in which Henry Blake is going home. 

This is a famous episode, because, shockingly, Blake’s departing helicopter is shot down, and he dies.

I vividly recall watching that episode during its original run.  I recall the various character-appropriate “goodbyes”, the helicopter lifting off of the ground, everyone watching it depart, and then suddenly, it explodes in mid-air.

Except it didn’t.

That’s how I traumatically remembered it.  But it was – belatedly revealed to me – an inaccurate recollection.

That I had seen with my very own eyes.

Except I hadn’t.

Because that is not the way it went down.  (The event, not the helicopter.)

When I watched that rerun, I discovered that the departing helicopter rose from the ground, and flew away safely.  Then, later, with the doctors toiling furiously in the MASH Operating Theater, “Radar” O’Riley comes in, and delivers the shattering news.

The show’s characters are devastated.  But then – as they must – they go back to their operating.

I swear to you, I’d have put money on, “The helicopter blew up before my eyes.”  I can visualize it right now.   The jocular “goodbyes.”  The whirring of the propellers.
And then,


It never happened.

I had remembered it incorrectly. 

Though I had no stake in the matter whatsoever. 

Which leads me to wonder,

What are the chances of
remembering things correctly

When I do?


Rebecca said...

Not kind of. As soon as you realize the implications, the possibility definitely shakes you to the core. All we can do is hope nothing crucial ever depends on the moments we remember wrong...and that the odds are in our favor.

JED said...

I've often wondered why people would confess to crimes they never committed. Is this one of the components involved in this? The scary part, to me, is if this phenomenon is studied enough, will it be possible for people to be manipulated into confessing whenever it is convenient for the authorities? I'm probably just being naive in thinking this doesn't happen already.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I recognize that psychology researcher as Elizabeth Loftus, whose work is definitely worth looking up. She's down a lot on the malleability of memory that's been really significant.