Anything like this ever happened to you?
I was scrolling through Facebook when I ran across a “shared” article about Roundup weed killer. The article was interesting and certainly informative about the dangers of Roundup, but I must admit that I did get distracted when it reminded me of something that happened almost seventy years ago.
This memory is very vivid. In my mind, I am about five years old, standing next to my dad who is talking over the backyard fence to a neighbor. I don’t remember the neighbor’s name, but I do have a clear image of his face. They were having a friendly discussion about all sorts of topics when the neighbor began educating both of us about a new wonder chemical called DDT. According to him, it had been developed recently and showed promise of revolutionizing farming everywhere. He was using it on his backyard garden, and he recommended that my Dad do the same.
That’s it. I remember virtually nothing else about the episode. Just that DDT was the best thing since sliced bread, and everybody would be using it. It killed all kinds of insects and was earning its developer, Paul Herman Muller, a Nobel Prize. That all sounds strange now, given what we eventually learned about the long term effects of DDT. In 1972 the US Environmental Protection Agency cancelled all use of DDT on crops.
That memory of being told about DDT is almost as old as I am, and I can remember it as if it happened yesterday. What do you suppose are the odds that this memory might be a figment of my imagination? Or at least seriously out of whack? And how can I find out?
I recall having the story come to mind many, many times over the years. It seems to pop into my head almost any time the topic of insecticides is brought up. In fact, I’ll bet that memory has played out in my mind literally hundreds of times over the years. And that’s part of the problem. Experts tell us that when we remember something from a long time ago, like an old family story, that memory gets rewritten again, and we may not store it away in exactly the same form as it earlier existed. We edit it in the context of present events and our own feelings. As a result, today’s memory could be several steps, and many details, removed from the original event.
Like most people, you probably have thousands and thousands of memories stored away. They all feel accurate, but occasionally something happens to cast one of them into doubt. Or even prove it wrong. For instance, I have a very distinct memory of fearing for the safety of my son, Joe, when he first started a paper route. As I remember it, I lost a lot of sleep thinking about the Johnny Gosh kidnapping, and feeling fear and guilt about letting Joe go out alone to deliver his papers on Sunday mornings. I didn’t want him to go out alone, and he didn’t want to have his father tagging along when he felt perfectly capable of taking care of himself. The whole episode is very clear in my mind. The problem is that Joe started his paper route when he was twelve years old, in 1978. And the Johnny Gosh kidnapping didn’t happen until four years later in 1982. I’m not sure when I put two and two together, but the events I remember so clearly could not have occurred. Not the way I remember them. Obviously, my memory of that time is faulty, and that means lots of other memories are suspect.
And I suspect that, if really challenged, your memory would be about as trustworthy as mine. It has been demonstrated many times that people remember only some details of events. Then, much later when they retrieve that memory, the mind uses a combination of inference and guessing to reconstruct the story. Then they set it aside to be reconstructed in a slightly different form the next time they recall what happened. What do you think are the odds that those old family stories we love to retell around the table at family get-togethers are one hundred percent accurate?
Memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, has conducted research that suggests memory is very unreliable. She believes that emotions such as boredom, stress, and trauma all affect the accuracy of our memories and can make them more or less reliable. She has even conducted experiments that suggest memories can be created artificially. In a famous study called “Lost in the Shopping Mall,” she showed how people could develop false memories of being lost in a mall just by questioning them about experiences that had never happened.
We often make jokes about old people and their inability to remember what happened yesterday, or what they had for lunch for that matter. But we continue to believe their long term memory remains strong. How accurate do you suppose those long term memories are?
And was your childhood the one you remember?