Today is a snow day, so between bouts of shoveling in 5 degree weather, I am perusing the web. Coincidentally, today's hot topic in the places I read is memory. How accurate is memory?, how easily can memory be falsified?, is there such a thing as recovered memory?, what does memory research teach us?
For me professionally, understanding memory is important in the process of doing psychotherapy. After all, it is with people's memories that I work all day. Early in my career, I learned that with psychotherapy the validity of a memory is less important than its impact. A client might recall an event as a painful experience, and that memory can have a present-day effect on his mood. That effect does not affirm the accuracy of the memory, just its impact. The impact is what I work with, as I can never know, minus sources of corroboration, whether my client's memory is precise.
How accurate is memory? The answer overall is "not very". Research demonstrates time and again how easily our memories are misled by simple suggestions. Asking, "what color was the traffic light before the accident?" will tend to elicit a response--regardless of whether there was a traffic light at the intersection in question. This is not because the witness is a fool, but because controlled intersections are common and, thus, an existing memory is elicited by the question and conflated with the memory being probed. What is not easy is to implant a totally foreign memory, such as suggesting that someone was injured in a crash, molested, or committed a crime. The fact that memory can be altered does not mean that it is completely unreliable and vulnerable to alteration.
The truth is that memories are malleable. It is thought that each time you access a memory, it is somewhat altered by the you who accessed it, who is not identical to the you who formed it. This makes for small changes over time in frequently retrieved memories, which are also affected by the conditions of retrieval and your mental state when remembering. Memory is not a simply thing.
Another aspect of the accuracy of memory is the strength of the attached emotions. Traumatic incidents tend to produce what are anachronistically termed "flashbulb memories," which tend to be stored differently, in fact, highly accurately, with a lot of highly charged emotional content. These memories tend not to be altered over time, as they are rarely retrieved deliberately (versus as flashbacks, because who wants to purposely recall the worst thing ever?) and the means of storage has been shown to be different. This, however, brings me to a point of contention. If flashbulb memories are so clear and unforgettable, how can some people claim to be missing memories for traumatic events?
Whether you term these "repressed" (which implies unconsciously hidden from awareness), "suppressed"(actively hidden from awareness), or simply missing, not everyone remembers everything bad, or even really bad, that happened to them. Our minds have ways to secrete memories that are too painful to process. This effect is not necessarily common, but occurs under certain circumstances that seem to involve the capability of the mind to handle the trauma, the capability of the mind to hide the memory, the age of the victim, and the type of event.
I'd like to add that trauma therapy is NOT focused primarily on recovering or clarifying memories. Trauma therapy at its best is focused on improving functioning, using whatever tools and skills this entails. If someone claims to be doing "recovered memory therapy," their focus is wrong, and it would be inadvisable to proceed.
As conscious beings, our identity is the sum of our memories; which can make it scary to think that perhaps you did not ride in that convertible in the picture from 40 years ago, or perhaps you did not make that trip to Vermont, and perhaps you did get lost at camp that summer. Be aware that most of those memories are close enough to reality to remain a good representation of where you have been, but some are just enough different to be startling.
If something seems to be pricking at you from the past, it is wise to look into it. But in most cases, it is unwise to assume that every aspect of the memory picture is absolutely accurate. Competent, respectful psychotherapy can help you function better despite painful memories, understand and reframe old hurts, and live more fully in the here and now.