I remember a time when my wife mangled retelling a story about my childhood so badly, I almost wondered if she was making it up. She got the highlights of the story right, but a lot of the filler wasn’t even close. As it turns out, that’s just the way her brain works. As a matter of fact, that’s the way all of our brains work.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a Harvard professor who had spent his career studying the human brain, and how it functions. In particular, he described a process through which our brains determine which parts of a given memory are important, and retain mostly just those parts. At the same time, our brains are perfectly content to complete in rest of the story with “filler.” Whether the filler is true or not. In terms of memory retrieval, this is a more efficient way to do it.
Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t distinguish between actual facts, and the made up filler. Police see this concept at work when they interview multiple witnesses of, say, a bank robbery. The witnesses try to give an accurate description of the perpetrator, and believe their account is accurate. But often wide-ranging variances make eye-witness accounts less than ideal.
Erika Hayasaki’s article, “How Many Of Your Memories Are Fake,” talks about basically the same thing. If you’ve ever found that someone else has a memory of an event that significantly differs from your own, this may be the article for you. (OP 1/21/2014)