S1E15. Vivid Memories That Aren’t

“I’m at Mom’s condo. The police are here. They won’t commit her. Can you please talk to them?”

It was a frantic call from my sister Lorna in Florida. My 83 year-old mother had assaulted her aide and the police had been called. We knew she was dementing, but she refused to move into assisted living. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

I vividly recall talking to the officer from the dining room of our B&B, holding the phone to my ear and pacing back and forth only as far as the cord would allow me. Fortunately, we had no guests at the time.

I told him that I was a licensed clinical psychologist and explained why she needed to be committed. He replied that she did not currently appear to be a danger to herself or others and he could not commit her under Florida’s Baker Act. He told me I was a terrible son for not taking better care of her and that if I didn’t make arrangements for her, he would have no alternative but to handcuff her and arrest her for assault. 

I told him to go ahead and arrest her. When he tried to do that, she did exactly what I knew she would do: she punched him. At that point, the police restrained her, brought her to a hospital psychiatric unit and had her committed. She got the help she needed.

Nearly all of what I just recounted is true, all except my vivid memory of having the conversation in the dining room of our B&B. You see, I didn’t become a clinical psychologist until 5 years after we sold the B&B.

Yet I can see this scene in my mind’s eye as clear as day. I see myself holding the phone…and that should have tipped me off that my memory was faulty, because I could not possibly have seen myself at that moment. I might have seen the table, the door out to the side porch, or my wife, but I would not have seen myself. The perspective of my memory was all wrong.

As memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus tells us, “…once you have an experience and you record it in memory, it doesn’t just stick there in some pristine form you know waiting to be played back like a recording device. But rather, new information, new ideas, new thoughts, suggestive information, misinformation can enter people’s conscious awareness and cause a contamination, a distortion, an alteration in memory…”

So mis-remembering is a fairly common occurrence, but I suspect it can become more of a concern as we age, not because we are subject to new information being received, but because our memories become more fluid and permeable, that is to say, more at risk for being contaminated by a nearby memory.

In the case I just described, I tried hard to recall some other important conversation I might have been remembering that had occurred in that location, but I couldn’t. Then I tried to imagine having the conversation in the house were I actually was living in 2003 when this happened…and I couldn’t. So the mystery of this faulty recollection remains unsolved.

But it does bring to mind a similar, more recent experience. Once again, my memory is distinct and clear. We had just moved to Kennett Square and we went to the grand opening of the local Democratic Party campaign headquarters. It was 2012 and we were eager to work for Obama’s re-election.

No sooner had we stepped inside the door than the party chair walked up to us, introduced himself, and asked where we lived. When I told him, he immediately invited me to join the organization as a committee person for our precinct.

Although I don’t see my wife who is standing beside me in this memory, I feel her presence. The problem is that it’s not Sally. It’s my first wife who had passed away two years earlier. 

That’s the kind of porous, mix-and-match memory recall that concerns me. I have no clue if this is meaningful or not in terms of distinguishing normal aging from the alternatives, but I’ll keep an eye on it. One thing is for certain: it’s definitely a mistake on the journey.

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12 Comments

  1. Zella Felzenberg says:

    I was just reminiscing with a cousin about being sent to a horse tank butt naked to clean up after playing in mud. But for the photo of our backside I don’t remember the incident— I didn’t tell her that. Instead We shared a good chuckle “remembering.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol Catanese says:

    This is fascinating…the intricacies of memory. Dr. Loftus’ explanation, “But rather, new information, new ideas, new thoughts, suggestive information, misinformation can enter people’s conscious awareness and cause a contamination, a distortion, an alteration in memory…”
    How something that occurs and is laid down in our neural network, then is affected and changed by other information, either already laid down or by newer experiences. It is fitting with how we learn, yes?

    The memory you described, not only was the part about remembering telling the police officer you were a psychologist incorrect, but did I also understand you weren’t even living in the B&B at the time? The bit about being a psychologist seems fitting as you reflect back on it, you can see that you intuited your future knowledge back to the scene. But why the B&B?

    More curious to me is the fact that when remembering an experience in such vivid living color, we see ourselves. I had a few traumatic experiences when I was younger. And anytime I remember anyone of those events I see myself going through it.

    It was circa 1966-67 and my mother was driving to pick up a younger brother, I was riding in the passenger seat (pre-car seat belt days). My mother misjudged the timing for making the left hand turn on a relatively busy road and we were hit (on the passenger side), our car being propelled into a curve and the impact forced open the passenger side car door, my upper body being swung out of the car with me holding onto the door handle for dear life for some seconds of time, then swung back in as the car swung back again. While I can’t remember what damage was done to the car, I know it wasn’t bad enough to prevent my mother from picking up my brother. The occurrence of the car being hit was at the corner where we were picking up my brother. He was out there, as were all the other young boys awaiting to be picked up. That was traumatic. I remember thinking, wow, I could have died. It was scary. But because my mother was mentally ill she had no concern for what had just happened, nor for my welfare. And I often wondered if I had imagined that memory. I saw myself flying out of the car and holding on for dear life. I still see myself. That was 1966-67. Fast forward to 2015. I reconnected with an old friend from mid-sixties on FB. He wrote one time in our early recnnection, as oft happens remembering past events, “One memory jumps out to me. We were waiting outside at the Knights of Columbus for our parents to pick us up, and your car was hit and your door swung open and you went flying out, holding on with all your might to keep yourself inside the car.”
    At least I had confirmation that the event happened, and my memory of seeing myself, well, it wasn’t far off from the reality as remembered by a guy I never spoke to about it until 50 years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. WOW…glad you survived! Your comment reminds me of when I was in a car accident with my father when I was five. In my memory of that, I also see myself. Maybe we’re on to something here: perhaps some memories are recorded from an observer’s vantage point and not our own?

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      1. I see that memory very clearly, as I was sitting next to you in the front seat. You were sitting in the middle, and when the accident happened your forehead went into the key in the ignition. We went to Beth Israel Hospital whereyou were stitched up. I remember the bandage which went around your head like a hairband.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wait a second…I don’t remember your being in the car!

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      3. You’re kidding, Right???

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  3. Carol Catanese says:

    But I guess your post was more about when our memory totally mixes up the reality of the event we are remembering, e.g. not seeing Sally at the 20212 Grand Opening. But it was only two years…maybe our memory mechanisms have a lag in the learning? Maybe as we age, the lag time lengthens. Maybe it is a problem like the hard drive running out of space. The brain is really the last great frontier of scientific exploration.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. COLLEEN M THORNTON says:

    I have had memories that were visually “re-mastered” all of my life. I often see myself as if in a movie, watching myself as the memory replays. And perhaps the feeling that Bertie was present (but not seen) is actually real; a sixth sense of her spirit in harmony with yours. Many memories seem to fade or evaporate, often when we are younger. I forgot my daughter’s first word after knowing it and remembering it clearly for years. Then one day, when she asked what it was, it was just gone. Her father forgot too. Can’t blame old age for that. But it may be like a computer’s harddrive memory; old data is written over when space is needed to store more data. Our brain cells are finite.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for confirming that this is a normal experience! A quick Google search revealed that older memories seem to be experienced more often as ‘observer’ memories where we see ourselves while more recent memories seem to be encoded from the ‘field’ perspective where the memory is from our actual point of view. Who knew? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810016304962

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  5. papaanton says:

    “…our memories become more fluid and permeable, that is to say, more at risk for being contaminated by a nearby memory.” Perhaps that helps explain why with each re-telling so many elected officials’ stories become more and more incredible. Another reason for electing a young(er) generation of leaders

    Liked by 1 person

  6. kzhop52 says:

    For many years I’ve always been able to correctly recollect and associate memories with places, because I lived in so many places. Once my husband retired from the Navy in 1993, I’ve had mix-and-match memories like you were describing. I always thought it was because I no longer had the divisions in my brain of where I was living when something happened. I was then living in one place…. long term. Prior to that, I could always remember what year a song came out, because I knew where I was living during that time. I may have been off by a year at most. After 1993, I have had no idea when any song came out. You would think my brain would’ve changed associations from where I was living, to the ages of my kids, or how old they were at the time, or what job I had. But it never did. I have often thought that if I had lived in the same place my entire life, as many people do, I don’t know how in the world I would reference certain memories to a particular year. Maybe the categories in one’s brain, differ greatly among individuals, and for me the biggest category was where I was living, and I no longer had that. So what happens in the brain when you are missing a huge functioning capability? Poof! I think the brain just starts making things up! LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

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