Memory is a funny thing and is not always as reliable as we tend to assume. And yet we DO rely on our memory and become deeply unsettled if it seems to fail us too frequently. This is an observation I've made again and again in my work with patients.
For example, a lot of my patients complain about not being able to remember things. They forget to complete tasks at work, they forget about appointments and meetings, they do not recall being told important information and often have no recollection of the conversation in which this information was given. They may forget to pay bills or to pick the kids up from school. One patient made plans with his wife for the following day. When they got up the next morning he turned to her and asked, "So what do you want to do today?" She looked at him aghast. "We talked about this for a while yesterday," she told him. "We made plans, remember?" But he did not remember. The patient is undeerstandably distressed. "I'm losing my mind," he tells me.
Another patient was disturbed after realizing that the memory of an event he'd been reliving in his mind for years was completely inaccurate. This particular patient works in the medical profession. For years he has been plagued by memories of a patient he treated while overseas. He clearly recalls his patient speaking to him, begging him to end his suffering. The memory is so vivid he can hear the patient's voice in his mind. When he (somewhat reluctantly) shared this memory with his psychiatrist he came to the sudden realization that his patient had been on a ventilator the entire time he'd been at the hospital. "He couldn't have said what I remember him saying," he said. "He was on a ventilator the whole time. He wouldn't have been able to speak at all," my patient told me. He told me that, upon coming to this realization, he left the psychiatrist's office in a hurry. "I couldn't even drive home afterwards," he said. "I sat in the parking lot for an hour trying to calm myself down." He'd concluded that his memory of something that never happened was a sure sign of insanity. He was shaken.
Of course, trouble with memory CAN signal a deeper problem - the onset of dementia, a brain tumor, or some other terrifying medical condition. What most people don't realize is that psychological trauma can also cause changes in memory. Memories of a traumatic experience can intrude in a person's thoughts, sometimes several times a day. If your mind is filled with memories of the past it becomes difficult to focus on what's going on around you in the present.
Sometimes a traumatic experience can disupt a person's sense of security such that the person no longer feels safe anywhere. Thus, he is always alert. When he leaves his house he is continously on guard. He spends a significant amount of time looking over his shoulder or scanning his surroundings, seeking to identify any potential threat. Looking for danger consumes most of his attention; he has little left over for everything else. He thinks he forgets what people tell him but perhapss he doesn't pay enough attention in the first place. The information is never encoded into his memory, which is why it isn't there when he tries to retrieve it later.
And sometimes memory plays tricks on us. If a trauma is particularly horrendous, a person might supress his or her memory of it. Some people are consumed by their own role in the event - how they reacted or the choices they made - that they completely lose sight of the context in which the event occurred. A woman might, for example, be angry at herself for not fighting back when someone attacked her. She is so focused on this that she completely forgets that the attacker had a gun and threatened to kill her. Memory is affected by perception; what we remember depends on what we think happened in the first place. A person's recollection of an event can even be influenced by things that happen after the event. There have been a number of studies about the reliability of crime witnesses. What they remember seeing can be influenced by something as small as how the investigating officer phrases his questions.
We rely on our memories; it is necessary if we are going function as successful members of society. I simply ask that we keep in mind that memory is falliable...