Reminisce. We all do it. In remembering that dreamy, perfect vacation to beach, the exhilaration of a passionate, new romance, or the wonder of being a new parent, the memories become romanticized and somewhat better than the actual experiences. Conversely, you can remember a fight with friend, the end of a relationship, or an almost impossible project at work and, in hindsight, the situation becomes much more horrific than it was. Like the fish tale, each memory packs a little more punch or gains some color in the process of remembering.
In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes that “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He says our memories are imperfect copies of what actually happened and compares them to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph. …we have to misremember something to remember it.”
At its most basic level, a memory is the slight shifts in certain synapses within a specific sequence which incorporate the various elements that make up the memory. Every time you recall a memory, the brain reconsolidates this incorporating and filtering it through who you are and what you know at the time of remembering. Hence, memory is an active and ongoing process. Lehrer says that “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”
Traditionally, science has viewed memories similar to unchanging words on the pages of a book stored safely on a shelf somewhere accumulating dust. Lehrer tells of experiments done at NYU in 2000 which prove this to be false and which demonstrate that the act of remembering actually changes the brain.
In the experiment, rats were conditioned to associate a shock with a noise. The experimenters let this memory solidify for 45 days until the rats cowered in fear just upon hearing the noise with no accompanying shock. Next, the rats were exposed to the sound, but were injected with a protein inhibitor that interrupted the process of recalling the memory of the shock. If the memory was filed away in some protected, long term storage, when the chemical wore off, the rats should have still been able to remember the shock associated with the noise. However, this is not what happened. When the rats were blocked from remembering, the original memory did not reappear and the rats were no longer fearful of the noise. This same methodology is being researched to possibly treat PTSD and drug addiction.