Archives for : memory

Does Memory Rewrite History?

Rob Elder interviews Donna J. Bridge, Ph.D., for a podcast on Feb. 6th, 2014.


Time heals all wounds, or so the adage goes.

Yet, Dr. Donna Bridge takes issue with that.

“Partly we forget and partly we change our memories,” says Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

In essence, our memory rewrites the past, as Bridge and co-author Joel Voss wrote in the newest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

In this episode of “The Big Questions” podcast, we ask: “How do memories rewrite history?”

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation in which we address what her research means for eyewitness testimony and dating. It can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. ”The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.


Q: Part of your study says that memory is not a video camera. Can you explain that?

Donna Bridge: Well, our memory is constantly changing. So we have also shown how every time you recall an experience that increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that event in the future. So recalling a memory is good for your memory …

But every time you recall an experience, you tend to, I don’t know, mix up details, distort people’s names or places … things like that. And so what ends up happening is that you tend to remember whatever you recalled last. So if you recalled something incorrectly, the next time you will recall that incorrect fact.


Q: Okay, that is frightening. As a researcher, how does this affect your relationship with your own memory?

Bridge: Well, not that much because of how I see memory … our memory is distorted, it’s not accurate. I just don’t see that as being the primary function of memory. Instead I see it as an adaptive process that allows us to interact with our environment and go through life as a good person. … I think that our memories inform our behavior and that sometimes changing our memories to fit our current experiences is actually a good thing.


Q: How can we know anything at all about ourselves, about history?

Bridge: You learn especially as you get older, with history that what is in the history books wasn’t at all a reality. We kind of make up our own paths as we go, and I think it is a good thing. We have this narrative of our lives and I think that says a lot more about who we are than actually the experiences we have happen to us. And even how we responded to those experiences. I think it is more so how we look back on those experiences that really shape us.


Q: The New Yorker recently did a retrospective on William S. Burrows and he remembered being molested as a 4-year-old. Axl Rose also had this sort of memory [of sexual abuse]. Now this is in the news again with Dylan Farrow accusing Woody Allen of molesting her as a child. So what does this mean for that kind of memory?

Bridge: My perspective on the childhood memories is that I would never want to be a jury member on one of those cases. Maybe it’s possible that these memories have been suppressed for a long time and then finally they’re coming up.

With the Dylan Farrow case, it sounded like it was a known thing, and now it’s just coming out. That’s more believable to me than never realizing it. Just having some issues all your life and then 20 years later suddenly realize, “I was molested as a child!” I think that is a lot less likely to be true than something that just hasn’t been out in the open.

Events that are recalled after they’ve been experienced are much more likely to be remembered than events that are never recalled. So, if you have never recalled something, it is very unlikely that suddenly 20 years later it will surface.

But that being said, emotional memories also add a little bit, a different flair to these processes. So for instance, this study I’ve done and how we insert new information to our memories, I haven’t done that with any kind of emotional material to see if that’s true. I have a hunch that it might be similar, but it operates in a little bit different level.


Q: We should point out that Woody Allen denies all the allegations and was never charged. And this story rages on.

Bridge: Here is the other interesting thing mainly about it … so let’s say it’s not true. I still wouldn’t blame Dylan Farrow, because I bet that she really believes it happened.

It is not that somebody is intentionally lying – our memories actually change and that’s what we think happened. … I don’t think that they’re out to get somebody. I think they really, genuinely believe and have high confidence in their memory. It’s just … it may have changed, but how can we prove it one way or the other?


Q: Although your research doesn’t directly deal with childhood trauma, what does it mean for those kinds of cases?

Bridge: Like I just said, it casts doubt on it, but I would hate to be a jury member because – even as an expert – who I am to go and say, your memory is wrong?

Unless you have actual evidence to prove one way or the other, and like I said, emotional memories are typically very strong, and maybe they’re less susceptible to change, I do not know. I would doubt it, but it’s possible.

Listen to the entire episode via SoundCloud.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Woody Allen’s rebuttal letter to the New York Times, which can be read here.

Dylan Farrow’s original letter can be read here.

How Do You Overcome Amnesia?


To some extent, all memoirs are about self-discovery.

But David Stuart MacLean’s memoir, “The Answer to the Riddle is Me,” is about the ultimate self-discovery: Trying to find out who you are after amnesia.

In 2002, MacLean found himself a blank slate, wide awake on a train platform in India. After a short time in a psych ward, MacLean’s world returned slowly and he learned that his amnesia had been a side effect of an anti-malaria drug called Lariam. The book documents MacLean’s winding road to rediscover — and reshape — himself.

In this inaugural edition of The Big Questions Podcast, part of the Sun-Times Media Local’s new podcast network, MacLean talks about how memory forms our sense of self, how he lives in fear of amnesia recurring and what memories have shaped him since his time in India. Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes, SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube.

MacLean opens his national book tour with a 7 p.m. reading tonight (Tuesday, January 14) at The Book Stall in Winnetka.

Q: How do you explain to people what amnesia feels like?

MacLean: Well, what you do is you end up taking whatever is at hand. So the first moment … I just opened my eyes and that train station is seared onto me. And that moment I remember really well – because the first moment of waking up without any memory, I was kind of fine. I was looking around. But once I realized: but what was I going to do next? [That] is when I freaked out, is when I was terrified.

And then my mind started racing, and a tourist police officer came up to help me. And he said to me: “We get people like you all the time – drug addicts like you all the time.” And as soon as he told me that, I was fine. So I constructed in my head a narrative of being a drug addict. I invented this woman, Christina, in my head, a very ugly red-headed woman with nickel-size freckles who I would do drugs with all the time in India. She and I would run around India doing drugs. Totally not true. Totally fabricated.

Q: That is the mind trying to feel out its own narrative, right?

MacLean: Exactly, yeah. The one thing the mind balks at is not having context. And so it will try using whatever materials it has to create that context and reassert the ego in the face of the chaos in the world.

Q: But did you truly have no sense of history? Like no childhood memories? 

MacLean: It’s difficult because there are different kinds of amnesia. It clearly didn’t affect my language sense. To be honest, there were spasms. And there would be times when I would remember stuff. And times when I didn’t; times when I would be totally confused again; times when I did, it was like this fugue state – just thrashing … I sort of let the confusion in the book stay there. That’s going to drive a lot of people crazy. But like, well good. It drove me crazy.

Q: You start to come back to yourself when you first see your parents. So what was it about that trigger as they visited you in the psych ward in India?

MacLean: Something clicked, and I saw them and I saw the way they looked at me. And it located me in a way; and it found me. And not everything was there. And at least I have the shape of what I was trying to fill. I still thought I was a drug addict. I kept apologizing to them for being a terrible, horrible drug addict that destroyed their lives which they thought was kind of funny.

Q: Then, they didn’t believe it?

MacLean: Right. Not at all. They were like, “David, you’re a dummy. Come on.” It’s good that I have parents with a good sense of humor because through this, it has not been easy.

Q: Do you still have Lariam in your brain? Is this a repeatable injury?

MacLean: I’m terrified of it all the time … It’s that feeling of at any moment, a molecule could fall out of place – and I’m a different person. That’s a terrifying thing to live with.

This excerpt was edited for length and context. To hear the entire conversation downloaded on iTunes,  at SoundCloud or stream on YouTube.