Thursday, September 13, 2007

Questioning my own sanity

Every now and then I stumble across something that makes me question my own sanity, and realize just how tenuous a grasp we actually have on the past.

I started college in 1982. I stayed for two quarters before going to California for the first of two six-month-long co-op jobs at IBM's Cottle Road facility in San Jose. On the second of those jobs, in 1984, I rented a room from my then-girlfriend's grandmother in Los Gatos and commuted to work in a 1969 Dodge Dart which I bought for $1700 and named Emily after a Simon and Garfunkel song that I had recently learned to play on the guitar. ($1700 might seem like a lot to pay for a Dart, but Emily had a brand new metallic-blue paint job and a like-new interior. She was a real beauty, almost showroom condition. They don't make 'em like her any more.)

My rent included room and board, and Grandma Betty would make me dinner every evening. At the beginning of the summer she asked me if I liked avocados, which I said I did. So every night for six months she served me half an avocado with a little puddle of Girard's champagne salad dressing in the hollow where the pit had been. It was actually quite tasty, but after six months of non-stop avocados it was about a decade before I could bear to face one again.

I mention all these trivial details to show that I have, at least apparently, a pretty clear recall of the time and the events, even if many of them seem a bit surreal to me now. And one of the things that I can recall very clearly is spending a lot of time watching MTV, which was the hot new thing at the time. And one of my favorite videos was Roxette's "Joyride". Marie Fredriksson was so hot, and the song just made me want to dance. I must have watched that video three dozen times in the summer of 1984.

Except that Joyride wasn't released until 1990. And the video wasn't made until 1991. In fact, Roxette didn't even release their first album until 1986. So although I can remember all of these events with absolute clarity and I would swear on my mother's grave that all of these things actually happened, it can't possibly be true (unless someone has rewritten the history of Roxette, which seems exceedingly unlikely).

It gets even weirder: in 1991 I was living in Southern California, and as far as I can recall I didn't have cable TV, so there's no way I could have seen the video at the time it was ostensibly released. And yet I definitely did see the video. I just pulled it up on YouTube after not having seen it for God only knows how many years and it's pretty much exactly as I remember it.

I wonder how many other things I remember that couldn't possibly have happened.


denis bider said...

The mind remembers things that happened but forgets the context... then when you try to remember the context, which you have forgotten, it gets confused and fakes one. Then the new faked context becomes burned in like a real memory; the memories of what did happen become interwoven with a fabric of faked stuff...

It is unfortunate that, looking back at our own lives, we sometime seem to know about our past about as much as about the past of a stranger. One thinks one remembers things because one can think of a past event and remember some details. Surely other details would come to mind if you thought harder about them... surely eventually the story would emerge. But it does not. We remember just a few details from the surface, but most of what has happened is long gone, long unreachable, long buried away... and our attempts to recount our own past are not much more reliable than the efforts of historians to uncover events that happened to long dead people, centuries ago.

Sunil Bajpai said...

Do I remember that Bush recounted seeing the second plane crashing into WTC towers as it happened--and wondering how a second accident could have happened!

Whereas, the video wasn't actually aired till much later and the President would have been briefed about what was happening much before that.

John Dougan said...

One of the few things about my memory I am truly grateful for is that it almost always flags bad memories as suspect. I may not remember something (heck, I often forget things), but I rarely get it badly wrong.

I wonder how common this is?

denis bider said...

The problem is, the only way to know you got it badly wrong is if you have convincing evidence or access to multiple other good witnesses that you can test your recollection against. We are rarely in a position where we can verify the accuracy of long term memory objectively.

Furthermore, it could also be that one tends to remember strongly instances when one's memory was accurate ("my memory was correct"), but to disregard instances when it was not ("my memory may have been mistaken, but I couldn't get to the bottom of it"). Hence, self-confidence gets reinforced, while self-doubt doesn't.