Pertinent to my recent blog discussing memory, I’m reminded of an interesting study that was done showcasing how fallible memory can be. The crux of it was something like this: a year after 9/11 a select group of people were surveyed and asked to recall where they were when they heard the news of the World Trade Center attack. Their answers were recorded. Two or three years later, the process was repeated. For the most part, people’s answers matched. But the study continued and at some point — around five years after the survey started I think — many of the answers started to change significantly. People who originally recalled being in their condominium when the towers were hit, now claimed to have been at their aunt’s house in Florida.
What the study ended up showing is that our memory is inherently faulty. As time goes on, our memories get corrupted. The reasons why are complex, but it’s probably something like this: you experience 9/11 in your condominium, then years later have a 9/11 memorial party at your aunt’s house, and the two memories get confusingly interlinked.
This leads to an interesting question: can the emotional content of memory change? It would seem clear that the answer is yes. For example, you might have a memory of the vacation you and your college sweetheart took during spring break one year. You fondly recall the blush of young love, the beautiful surroundings, having sex four times a day etc. But then someone informs you that the whole time you were dating, your sweetheart was having an affair with some sleazy drug addict. Your lover even took the gifts you gave them and sold them for money to buy their secret lover drugs. After you hear this, you sour every time you recall that vacation. Your chest tightens at the betrayal, your stomach gurgles at the fact you were made into such a fool.
Then, a decade later, someone gives you another update. It turns out that your sweetheart and their paramour decided to go skydiving one day. As they parachuted to Earth, they were blown off course into an alligator farm. There, over the course of hours, they were slowly devoured by alligators who playfully grabbed them, drug them under water almost to the point of suffocation, but then released them to the surface to allow their agonies to continue. The couple even begged armed alligator wranglers to shoot them and end their misery, but the wranglers merely laughed at their stupidity. All of a sudden a good memory turned bad suddenly turns good again, as you laugh at the hideous and slow death of someone who violated your trust.