Digital rendering of three worlds and a Jesus type figure in the sky.
Martin Conwayi believes there are two forces at work when we attempt to remember anything: correspondence and coherence.
Correspondence is all about maintaining some integrity when accounting for the past. Most of the time, we’ll do our best to be faithful to the facts as we remember them. But this most always rests on shaky ground. If you have a sibling and begin reminiscing about some event that happened thirty years ago, you know how divergent your two accounts can be. Each of you will be willing to bet your firstborn that your account is the correct one. Without a video shot from an objective position (if you can even imagine any particular point of view being objective), good luck reconciling these two versions of reality. The best we can do is to approximate our recollection with the facts as we remember them. But as we have seen in previous blogs, memory is more of an interpretative affair than a perceptual one.
We also have an equal drive to conform our memories of the past to our current self-concept. Unwittingly, we’ll adapt our memories to pressing goals and needs in the present. This is our attempt to cohere. Our sense of self can easily be threatened if we lack coherence. If we have come to think of ourselves as generous and helpful, we might have difficulty integrating into our self-concept that we were not necessarily always so giving. We can easily compartmentalize those memories, sequestering them in some dark inner cave where they’ll never again see the light of day.
How do we balance these forces of correspondence and coherence that are so often at loggerheads? In the end, most of us favor coherence. We’ll more often than not unconsciously suborn the “truth” of what occurred to other needs and interests. This is how we weave together our identity and create the story that we live in and present to others.
Our memory also tends to dwell on a few essential details that were either relevant at the time an event occurred or are most pertinent in the context of our present concerns for telling a story. As we share, we’ll quickly discard many things that aren’t relevant to the current circumstances. All memory is selective in this way. Nathan Bransford says that “we are so adept at distilling our lives into stories that we forget how tenuous a connection they really have to reality, how much we highlight some events while brushing over others, how much our biases come into play, how we will weave together disparate events, even random occurrences, into some sort of cohesive shorthand that can’t possibly capture the enormity of a life. Heck, our stories can’t even fully capture the smallest of moments.”ii
We, humans, are fundamentally fiction writers. Even the best autobiography has more to do with good literature than a historical account of a life. Rarely would we ever seek out our enemies for their story about us. Without another thought, we’d neatly discount and exclude naysayers’ accounts. Even if we see our life in tragic terms, that too is fictitious. It’s merely a point of view that we have adopted. Give another person the same life circumstances, and they could just as quickly cast themselves in a heroic tale of triumph.
Next Week: The Seven Sins of Memory
i Martin A. Conway, Jefferson A. Singer, Angela Tagini (2004). The Self and Autobiographical Memory: Correspondence and Coherence. Social Cognition: Vol. 22, Autobiographical Memory: Theoretical Applications, pp. 491-529. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.22.5.491.50768
ii Stories Are How We Make Sense of Life, July 14, 2011 by Nathan Bransford, https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/07/stories-are-how-we-make-sense-of-life