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Don’t trust your memory

March 2020 | by Stephen Rees

We moved from North Wales when I was seven years old. But my memories of life there are very vivid. Plodding to school through the snow during the winter of 1963. Climbing the oak tree in the fields behind our home. Playing the third king (‘myrrh I bring’) in a nativity play and refusing, terror-struck, to go on stage. Being chased by a herd of pigs while exploring with my sister. Roller-skating down the corridors of Bodelwyddan Castle.

Can I trust my memory?

How reliable are my memories? Yes, we went to a local evangelical church. But did it really meet in the local library? And was there a picture along one wall of a stream running over rocks? No. I’m assured that the meetings were held in a church building. But I can see the library now. I can see the red tubular steel chairs and the piano in the corner. I can see the water splashing over the stones. Somewhere along the way, my memory of church has become entangled with other memories.

On some things, my memory is astonishingly exact. I’ve just gone to Google Street View to see the house where we lived. And yes, it’s exactly as I remember it. There’s the wall on which I sat on a hot summer’s day, crying because I had been banished from the meal table. I can remember the texture of the stone slabs that topped the wall. But I can’t remember what my crime was that had led to my banishment. Perhaps I had carelessly knocked over a visitor’s cup of tea? There’s a dim recollection of some such episode. But if so, I’ve no idea who the visitor might have been. I do remember that there were buttered derby scones that day – my favourite. Hence the tears when I was sent away.

Gaps and inventions

Memory is a strange thing. I can carry exact memories for half a century. And yet, other events have vanished without trace. I open a file and find a set of detailed notes from a lecture series I attended at university. I sat through a dozen lectures. I wrote page after page of notes. But my memory is blank. If anyone had asked me whether I had ever heard that lecturer speak, I would have sworn that I had never heard of him.

Even stranger are the events I remember which never happened. I look at an old diary and I read what I wrote about a conference I attended. ‘Big disappointment – JS hasn’t been able to get here this year.’ But surely I met JS at that conference. I remember listening in to a conversation between him and DJ. My diary tells me that my memory is false.

I can be confused about things that happened last week. I say to my wife, ‘I’ve got some news. Fiona told me that Jane’s had her baby.’ Anne looks baffled. ‘No’, she says, ‘I told you that Jane had had her baby – and I asked you to tell Fiona.’ But my memory’s so clear. I may not remember where or when Fiona gave me the news, but I remember the conversation – don’t I?

I’m sure I’m not alone in having these strange memory lapses. Some years ago, a member of the church here reported to another member everything that had happened in a church business meeting only to discover that the meeting had been cancelled. She could ‘remember’ the meeting and the various things folk had said – but it had never happened.

Was she lying? No. I don’t think so for a moment. It was simply that she had spent a lot of time preparing for the meeting, thinking about what might be said, and it had become so real in her mind that her imagination became confused with her memory. The different scenarios she had constructed in her imagination had become so vivid that she ‘remembered’ them happening.

Someone tells you a story about an event. Years later, your picture of the event is so vivid that you’re sure that you must have been there. But in fact you were nowhere on the scene. Or maybe you were present on some occasion – you can remember the part you played. Except that you didn’t. It was someone else who fell off the chair or dropped the tea-tray.

Unforgettable events?

Many people claim that they can remember the exact moment when they heard about big, world-shaking events happened: the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre; Princess Diana’s death. More than fifty years on, I can remember my teacher coming into our classroom ashen-faced and telling us that a slag-heap had swallowed up a school in a Welsh mining village. I can see the room, the blackboard, her face. But maybe the picture in my mind has changed over the years.

Researchers who have investigated such claims report that it’s rare to find anyone whose memory matches the facts exactly. Time distorts the memories even of those who actually witnessed such events first-hand. Researchers have interviewed witnesses twenty-four hours after one of these ‘unforgettable’ events and then interviewed them again five years later. In many cases, their memory five years on has little or no relation to what they reported at the time.

Very often, it’s as we tell our memories to other people that they are reshaped. We tell the same stories again and again – personal anecdotes that we think other people will find interesting or amusing. But each time we tell them, we find ways of making them more enjoyable. We leave out irrelevant information. We add graphic details. We report not what we said, but what we might have said if we had been more quick-witted. We exaggerate the drama or the danger. We may do it consciously. But more often, we do it without realising that we are doing it. And in the end, it’s the polished, smoothed-off version that we remember, even if it has little resemblance to the original event.

Tony, Hillary, and me

Some politicians have gained a reputation for telling stories which when they’re investigated prove to be fantasy. In a TV interview, Tony Blair told the story of how as a schoolboy in the 1960s, he stowed away on a plane at Newcastle Airport. The plane was flying to the Bahamas. ‘I snuck onto the plane, and we were literally about to take off when the stewardess came up to me and said, “I don’t think I actually saw your boarding pass.”’ The only thing is there were no flights in the 1960s from Newcastle Airport to the Bahamas.

Hillary Clinton claimed in 2008 that twelve years earlier she had arrived in Tuzla, Bosnia, under terrifying circumstances. ‘I remember landing under sniper fire…There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.’ Unfortunately, video footage still exists of the event she ‘remembers’ so vividly. She can be seen strolling with her daughter Chelsea from the plane, to be greeted by a reception committee of enthusiastic children.

I used to think that the tales told by Blair, Clinton, and others in the public eye were conscious inventions – deliberate lies told to bolster their reputations. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps they really ‘remember’ their own heroic deeds. The only problem is that they’ve told the stories so often that they have little resemblance to the original events.

I wonder how many of my own favourite anecdotes (‘I remember when…’) actually match the original events. Did I really leap across a stream to the far bank forty feet below me, breaking a leg in the process? Well yes, no doubt about the broken leg. But was it really forty feet? That’s the way I usually tell the story. The memory is very vivid – to the point where it makes me feel sick. But how much has it grown over the years?

Seven sins of memory

Daniel Schacter is the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Psychology and one of the world’s leading researchers on the way memory functions. One of his books is called The Seven Sins of Memory: how the mind forgets and remembers. In it he lists seven ways in which the memory fails us.


The first he calls transience, by which he means simply the way that memories fade and are lost with the passing of time. Someone visits the church. He tells me that he has been several times before in the past. But I’ve no memory of him. His face is unfamiliar. His name rings no bells. I can no longer remember that lecture course I attended as a student. Even looking at my notes doesn’t bring it back to me. Do you remember what you had for tea two weeks ago? Unless you have some special reason for remembering, your brain will almost certainly not retain such unnecessary information. Do you remember what music you heard on the car radio going to work yesterday morning? Almost certainly not.

Bear that in mind when you read autobiographies or listen to testimonies. Christian bookshops are filled with best-selling ‘true life stories’. They’re written to be interesting and that means they’re filled with vivid details. But how many of the details are fact? Here’s an example chosen at random from the books on my shelf. This is Charles Colson recounting events ten years earlier. He’s visiting his friends John and Mo Dean for the first time in their home:

…John came outside to meet us as we parked on a slope. ‘Put your emergency brake on,’ he laughed. ‘We lost a Volkswagen over the edge last year.’

‘I brought my oxygen,’ I quipped back…

Mo prepared us a sumptuous meal – beef Wellington, fresh vegetables, roasted potatoes, topped off with homemade popovers, served piping hot. As Mo cast aside her apron and sat down, John looked at us with a quizzical smile, hesitated an instant and then asked if I would say the blessing…

Patty (Charles’s wife) has an irrepressible wit… Seeing the steam rising from the serving dishes and remembering some of my lengthy prayers, she couldn’t hold it back: ‘Sure hope the dinner will stay hot…’

And so it continues. Authors of such books, it seems, can remember half a lifetime later what they or others wore on a particular occasion; they can report lengthy conversations word for word; they can recall the expressions on people’s faces; they can tell you how a room was furnished and what pictures were on the wall. I can’t remember events from yesterday in that sort of detail. And neither, I suspect, can you. Could you tell me what you were wearing the first time you visited the church you attend? Or who was the first person who spoke to you after the service? If you can, well done, but I’d be surprised.

The fact is that such books are highly fictionalised. Skilled ghost-writers weave a mass of imaginary details around a very small kernel of facts. You should never take such stories as a reliable account of people’s experiences. We simply don’t remember the past in that sort of detail. Paul couldn’t even remember who he had baptised in Corinth! ‘I thank God that I baptised none of you’ and then he remembers ‘except Crispus and Gaius’. And then another name pops into his mind. ‘I did baptise also the household of Stephanas.’ And finally he admits, ‘Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptised anyone else…’ (1 Corinthians 1:17). If Paul couldn’t remember which of his beloved converts he had baptised five years earlier, how do these authors remember conversations twenty years after they’ve happened?


Schacter’s second ‘sin of memory’ is absent-mindedness – the countless occasions when we forget something we’re supposed to be doing, when we miss an appointment, when we put down our cup of tea and forget about it until it’s cold. While I was writing this article, I clean forgot that I was supposed to take a break and give my boys a Latin lesson. While we concentrate on one thing, something else fails to surface in our mind.

Most researchers agree that absent-mindedness increases as we get older. But it seems that none of us are immune. Which is why we have to use all sorts of techniques to avoid disappointing others and causing them inconvenience. An appointment diary; post-it notes on the fridge; an alarm on the phone. If others let me down through absent-mindedness, I can understand it but it still makes my life difficult. So I must make sure I don’t let others down.


The third ‘sin’ our memory commits: blocking. Those irritating times when we are trying to recall something. We know that it is there in our memory. It’s ‘on the tip of our tongue’. But we can’t get it out. The PIN code for your credit card. Your cousin’s name. The word that the doctor used. The Bible verse you want to quote. It happens to us all.


Fourth sin: misattribution. That covers many of the memory mistakes I’ve talked about in this article. Schacter defines it as ‘assigning a memory to the wrong source: mistaking fantasy for reality, or incorrectly remembering that a friend told you a piece of trivia that you actually read about in a newspaper…’


The fifth sin is related. Suggestibility. Psychologists have discovered that it is worryingly easy to create false memories in people. There have been cases where people have confessed to crimes they could not have committed. Yet they remember them vividly and in great detail. How could it happen? The police or other questioners have put suggestions to them, described what they might have done, encouraged them to visualise the scene – until finally, the suspect ‘remembers’ the crime they never committed.

Some therapists – including so-called Christian therapists – have specialised in helping clients recover ‘repressed memories’, especially of childhood abuse. A client comes to the therapist troubled by any one of a host of conditions – sleeplessness, panic-attacks, eating disorders, depression. The therapist suspects that the root cause of the problem is that the client was abused as a child. But the client has no memory of any abuse. So the therapist begins to ask leading questions. ‘Did your father…?’ ‘Did your Sunday-school teacher…?’ He encourages the client to visualise possible scenarios and to try to relive them in her imagination. And bit by bit ‘memories’, graphic, vivid, painful memories of abuse, emerge. And the therapist encourages the client to confront the abuser or to report the matter to the police.

The fact is that in many cases it is the therapist who has planted the memories in the client’s mind. There have been many thousands of cases where innocent people have been accused (in some cases convicted) and families have been torn apart on the basis of such recovered memories.

Thankfully, the tide may have begun to turn on this. There have been too many cases where it was proved that the abuse could not have happened. And the police are becoming more aware of the power of suggestibility. Common sense tells us that people rarely forget deeply painful events. (People who survived Auschwitz or Buchenwald did not forget what they had endured!) If a person says, ‘I was abused but I had no memory of it until my therapist recovered it from my subconscious,’ we have every reason to doubt their account.

As I say, many ‘Christian’ therapists bought into the ‘recovered memory’ industry. I believe that there is a place for skilled psychiatrists and counsellors. But just because someone is – or claims to be – a Christian, does not mean that we should trust his judgement.

Children, of course, are particularly suggestible. Wise parents know how careful they have to be when questioning their children about anything that’s happened. It’s easy for questions to become suggestions, and suggestions to become persuasion. ‘Did the dog jump right up at you?’ ‘Was he fierce?’ ‘Did he growl?’ By the time you’ve finished, the child may remember not what actually occurred but the imaginations you’ve planted in his mind.


Schacter’s sixth heading is bias. And again, that covers many of the examples I’ve given above. So often the way we remember things is shaped by what we want to believe happened. You may have listened to a man telling the story of his failed marriage and divorce. But you know that at many points his account is unreliable. He’s leaving out lots of details that reflect badly upon himself. He’s rearranging the order of events. He’s exaggerating the bad behaviour of his wife. He’s recounting things that he guessed she did as if they had definitely happened. But he believes it all. He’s telling you the story as he remembers it.

On the other side, we listen to a fisherman telling the story of the fish he caught last year. And his arms are stretched wide as he shows you how big it was. Is he lying? Not consciously. This is the way he remembers it. This is the way he wants to remember it. The heart of man is deceitful above all things. The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that every part of man is corrupted by sin – and that includes his memory.


And Schacter’s seventh heading? Persistence. Our inability to forget ‘disturbing information or events that we would prefer to banish from our minds altogether…’ People are haunted by traumatic, or embarrassing, or corrupting memories that they can’t get rid of. And that applies to Christian believers as it does to others. We may know that our sins are forgiven; that the Lord has promised to cast them into the deepest depths of the sea – and yet we may find that the memories resurface to cause us shame and wretchedness. It is only in eternity that our scarred memories will finally be healed. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Memory will cause us no pain when at last we enter the heavenly city.

Three lessons to learn

Why have I spent so much time writing about the ‘sins’ of memory? Of course, when Schacter used that word, he wasn’t meaning sins in the Biblical sense. He was simply saying that our memories let us down. Some memory failures do spring from sin – for example, from sinful biases – but many are simply down to the fact that we are finite creatures, with limited capabilities. I can no more remember all the things that I would like to remember than I can jump to the moon.

Do I really need to spell out the fact that our memories are imperfect? Well, yes I think I do. For three reasons at least.

Firstly, because I need to be more patient with other people when their memory fails. When they don’t remember things that I’ve told them. When they forget to do things they’ve promised. When I think their memory of events is biased and unfair. Yes, their memory is faulty. But so is mine. How often have I had to say to the Lord, ‘I’m sorry, I forgot!’ And his response? ‘He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust…’ (Psalm 103:14). Shouldn’t I show the same patience towards others?

Secondly, because I need to guard myself from dogmatism, especially when I’m arguing with others about anything that’s happened in the past. ‘Well I remember…!’ Do I really? The fact that I remember it doesn’t make it true. I look back and recall people with whom I’ve fallen out over the years. I remember exactly what they did and what they said. Or do I? Couldn’t it be my own sinful, proud bias that’s distorting my memory? I argue with my wife or my children about conversations we had yesterday. Their accounts are utterly different from my own. But I know I’m right. Because I remember it so clearly. Do I? If we realise how fallible our memories are, it should make us humble.

And thirdly, because it makes me grateful for an infallible Bible, written by men who were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Left to themselves, these men – even when recounting their own experiences – would have been as liable to mistakes as you or I. But God so overruled that every statement they made was true and reliable. Jesus promised his apostles that ‘the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you…’ (John 14:26). For the apostles, and for every Bible author, this empowering of memory was a vital aspect of inspiration. The words even of my most trusted friends are fallible, but ‘the words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in furnace … purified seven times’ (Psalm 12:6).

All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

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