A Blessing Bestowed by the Gods
In Yasunari Kawabata’s unsettling short story “Yumiura,” a novelist receives an unexpected visit from a woman who says she knew him thirty years earlier. They met when he visited the town of Yumiura during a harbor festival, the woman explains. But the novelist cannot remember her. Plagued recently by other troublesome memory lapses, he sees this latest incident as a further sign of mental decline. His discomfort turns to alarm when the woman offers more revelations about what happened one day when he visited her room. “You asked me to marry you,” she recalls wistfully. The novelist reels while contemplating the magnitude of what he has forgotten. The woman explains that she has never forgotten their time together and feels continually burdened by her memories of him.
After she leaves, the shaken novelist searches maps for the town of Yumiura with the hope of triggering recall of the place and the reasons why he had gone there. But no maps or books list such a town. The novelist then realizes that he could not have been in the part of the country the woman described at the time she remembered. Though the woman believed that her detailed and heartfelt memories were accurate, they were entirely false.
Kawabata’s story dramatically illustrates different ways in which memory can get us into trouble. Sometimes we forget the past and at other times we distort it; some disturbing memories haunt us for years. Yet we also rely on memory to perform an astonishing variety of tasks in our everyday lives. Recalling conversations with friends or recollecting family vacations, remembering appointments and errands we need to run, calling up words that allow us to speak and understand others, remembering foods we like and dislike, acquiring the knowledge needed for a new job -- all depend, in one way or another, on memory. Memory plays such a pervasive role in our daily lives that we often take it for granted until an incident of forgetting or distortion demands our attention.
In this book I explore the nature of memory’s imperfections, present a new way to think about them, and consider how we can reduce or avoid their harmful effects. Memory’s errors have long fascinated scientists, and during the past decade they have come to occupy a prominent place in our society. With the aging of the baby boom generation, memory problems are increasingly common among this large sector of the population. A 1998 cover story in Newsweek proclaimed that memory has become the principal health concern of busy, stressed- out, and forgetful baby boomers -- and many others. Forgotten encounters, misplaced eyeglasses, and failures to recall the names of familiar faces are becoming regular occurrences for many adults who are busily trying to juggle the demands of work and family, and cope with the bewildering array of new communications technologies. How many passwords and PINs do you have to remember just to manage your affairs on the Internet, not to mention your voice mail at the office or your cell phone? Have you ever had to apply for a temporary PIN at a website because you’ve forgotten your permanent number? I certainly have.
In addition to dealing with the frustrations of memory failures in daily life, the awful specter of Alzheimer’s disease looms large. As the general public becomes ever more aware of its horrors through such high profile cases as Ronald Reagan’s battle with the disorder, the prospects of a life dominated by catastrophic forgetting further increase our preoccupations with memory.
Although the magnitude of the woman’s memory distortion in “Yumiura” seems to stretch the bounds of credulity, it has been equaled and even exceeded in everyday life. Consider the story of Binjimin Wilkomirski, whose 1996 Holocaust memoir, Fragments, won worldwide acclaim for portraying life in a concentration camp from the perspective of a child. Wilkomirski presented readers with raw, vivid recollections of the unspeakable terrors he witnessed as a young boy. His prose achieved such power and eloquence that one reviewer proclaimed that Fragments is “so morally important and so free from literary artifice of any kind at all that I wonder if I even have the right to try to offer praise.” Even more remarkable, Wilkomirski had spent much of his adult life unaware of these traumatic childhood memories, coming to terms with them only in therapy. Because his story and memories inspired countless others, Wilkomirksi became a sought-after international figure and a hero to Holocaust survivors.
The story began to unravel, however, in late August 1998, when Daniel Ganzfried, a Swiss journalist and himself the sson of a Holocaust survivor, published a stunning article in a Zurich newspaper. Ganzfried revealed that Wilkomirski is actually Bruno Dossekker, bbbbborn in 1941 to a young woman named Yvone Berthe Grosjean, who later gave him up for adoption to an orphanage. Young Bruno spent all of the war years with his foster parents, the Dossekkers, in the safe confines of his native Switzerland. Whatever the basis for his traumatic “memories” of Nazi horrors, they did not come from childhood experiences in a concentration camp. Is Dossekker/Wilkomirksi simply a liar? Probably not: he still strongly believes that his recollections are real.
We’re all capable of distorting our pasts. Think back to your first year in high school and try to answer the following questions: Did your parents encourage you to be active in sports? Was religion helpful to you? Did you receive physical punishment as discipline? The Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer and his collaborators put these and related questions to sixty-seven men in their late forties. Their answers are especially interesting because Offer had asked the same men the same questions during freshman year in high school, thirty-four years earlier.
The men’s memories of their adolescent lives bore little relationship to what they had reported as high school freshmen. Fewer than 40 percent of the men recalled parental encouragement to be active in sports; some 60 percent had reported such encouragement as adolescents. Barely one-quarter recalled that religion was helpful, but nearly 70 percent had said that it was when they were adolescents. And though only one-third of the adults recalled receiving physical punishment decades earlier, as adolescents nearly 90 percent had answered the question affirmatively.
Memory’s errors are as fascinating as they are important. What sort of system permits the kinds of distortions described in Kawabata’s fiction and the Wilkomirski case, or the inaccuracies documented in Offer’s study? Why do we sometimes fail to recall the names of people whose faces are perfectly familiar to us? What accounts for episodes of misplaced keys, wallets, or similar lapses? Why do some experiences seem to disappear from our minds without a trace? Why do we repeatedly remember painful experiences we’d rather forget? And what can we do to avoid, prevent, or minimize these troublesome features of our memory systems?
Psychologists and neuroscientists have written numerous articles on specific aspects of forgetting or memory distortions, but no unified framework has conceptualized the various ways in which memory sometimes leads us astray. In this book, I provide such a framework. I try to develop a fresh approach to understanding the causes and consequences of memory’s imperfections that, for the first time, suggests a way to think about the wide range of problems that memory can create.
As a memory researcher for more than twenty years, ...