Our Memories Lie to Us

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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

― Marcel Proust

In a world of fake news, alternative facts, skewed polls, and misremembered anecdotes, it can sometimes be difficult to know what is real and what is not.

Yet, we’re all sure of what’s in our own heads. Right?

Not quite.

Have you ever known two people that were relieved, even ecstatic, to end a relationship only to see them get back together a few months later? How about people that divorce but then get married again?

Have you ever lost touch with a friend, then reconnected later only to realize that there was a reason the two of you lost touch in the first place? It ended for a reason. Why did we think it would be different this time?

Have you ever been desperate to leave a job or a school that you hated, but after a few years find yourself nostalgic for the rare good times and good people, failing to understand why you thought it was so bad in the moment?

Have you ever used a song or an album to help you get through a tough time, a rough patch that you think will never end, but when you hear it years later, it somehow brings back good memories?

Have you ever been reminded of something in which you participated and while you know you were there, it feels like it may have happened in a different life?

Why do we do this?

It’s because of our brains.

As time inexorably marches forward our memories fade, yes, but they also change. Instead of being sharp, bright-colored snapshots of specific moments, they devolve into hazy, sepia-toned highlight reels with vague feelings, like a flashback in a Jimmy Stewart film.

We romanticize the past, creating a halo effect. This is biological, evidenced by the miracle of childbirth and its power to change recollection:

Interestingly, while the science won’t back up the claim that women forget entirely, it does suggest that over time, many women remember labour and birth pain as being less severe than they originally recalled. This relationship seems to hold mainly for women who reported moderate levels of pain.

Our human brains do this as a mode of survival. If a neanderthal in the hunter-gatherer days thought about all of the animals that had escaped him, he’d come to the conclusion that it was an exercise in futility and give up.

The same is true today. If your mind allowed you to recall every failure and foible, stumble and setback you’ve ever experienced, you’d be paralyzed by severe melancholy and would refuse to get out of bed.

Instead, our brains have evolved to allow us to look back on the worst parts of our lives and be filled with warm, romantic nostalgia.

Otherwise, our memories of puberty, getting cut from the baseball team, getting turned down for the prom, and business school would make us all clinically depressed.


Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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