Old Age and Autobiographical Memory

Encountering new research on autobiographical memory is always unsettling. Even if you avoid the frightening findings on Alzheimer’s and other pathological conditions, the unreliability and difficulty of aging memory are humbling. All of the errors of recall that beset the young become more pronounced in the old.

A well written and authoritative description of the burgeoning field can be found in Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough. He is not only a noted young British researcher, but also a novelist; he enlivens the science by drawing on literature and his own life experiences to explicate the facets of memory research. His chapter on autobiographical memory and normal aging discusses his series of interviews with Nanna, his remarkably spry 95 year old Jewish immigrant grandmother.

The bad news is that even among the aged with the best memory abilities, the aging brain has to cope with shrinking grey matter and weakening synaptic connections. We lose inches, muscle strength, and energy along with deterioration in the prefrontal cortex. Older persons have more difficulty in identifying the sources of the information they recall; with the slippage of source memory one can fail to remember what messages should be kept private. These lapses can account for incidents such as Ronald Reagan’s embarrassing gaffe of falsely remembering a movie plot as a real life event.

The fallibility and errors of memory exist among the old and, indeed, at every age because of incredibly complex memory processes being discovered in scientific experiments. To recall a memory you do not simply read off a stored file or record but have to actively reconstruct the memory. Autobiographical memory, or episodic memory, is much more of a challenge than remembering a list of the state capitals or how to ride a bike.

Remembering the personal past is a form of mental time traveling. One as an “I” has to construct a dramatic scene that includes “me” as the star interacting with others or events at a particular time and place and in a specific social setting. And the “I” that acts in the present must identify with the self I was then.

There are so many dynamic factors in play that it easy to construct distorted or completely false memories. First off there is always the question of whether you were paying enough attention in the past to record or process the information you are trying to remember. The more attentive you were, the better the processing, and the more likely it is for information to be accurately recalled. Emotionally intense and unusual events are also more likely to be recorded and recalled. In addition, being in the same situation as you were in when an event occurred can cue your recall of it, although feelings of remembering or vividness can also be misleading. Longtime friends and family members also can help cue shared memories, but, yet again, other people’s memories may contaminate or introduce errors into your constructed account. In some cases a false memory can be transmitted. Whose version of the past should be accepted?

Emotions and perspectives operating in the present have a strong effect on the remembering construction in the present. Memories can serve present needs. People desire to look good or to be important players or want to conform to their present group’s version of the past. As persons change their memories may also change: Yes, I see it all differently now. This is why as Faulkner noted, the past “is not even past.”

Recreating one’s own past is an emotional and intellectual challenge full of interest. No wonder old people and old friends enjoy reminiscence and reunions. We consciously review the past and may be cued to remember more details. Our present perspectives can give new insights on the experience. A change in our present emotions may release older feelings that were formerly slighted or ignored.

Two motivating forces appear to be at work in remembering: one of them is to seek correspondence to the facts and the other is to create a coherent account that serves a person’s present concerns. Constructing a narrative account or meaningful story helps to keep all the complicated parts of remembering together. It makes sense of experience.

One drawback of seeking coherence, however, is that when some information isn’t available or is too threatening, it may be creatively invented–without even awareness. Elements can be rearranged or added to enhance the story. Worse still, people (and mice) can be primed, conditioned, or influenced by information that will falsify a memory. Sincere but false eye-witness testimony has convicted many innocent persons.

So why is the amazing human capacity for memory sometimes so accurate and at other times so fallible? One theory is that memory is really more about predicting and coping with the future. Hence, if we get the gist of an event that’s enough and more important than the details. Forgetting details may also leave more mental room for abstract thinking or novel challenges. Other theorists propose that the constructive misremembering that produces confabulated coherent stories is the necessary cognitive fount of creative imagination and culture.

Charles Fernyhough, as a scientist and novelist, defends memory as a special kind of truth. Constructing a coherent story meets the personal emotional needs of life, as well as gives us art and fiction. Science demands an account and memories that correspond to truth, but misremembered emotional stories are valuable too.

However appealing I cannot agree with this view, which endorses creative self-deceit. We can celebrate fiction as an art form without accepting personal fictitious histories that make us feel good. It is bad enough to be limited, fallible, and forgetful without celebrating the occurrences of false memories.

As we get older, we should use every stratagem to accurately recall our memories that correctly correspond to reality. Or better yet, we should keep on learning and emotionally developing in the present. A full and enlarged present can produce better memories for future recall. Indeed, as new perspectives and insights are gained today, we can even enhance and change one’s understanding of one’s past.

Once accepting that to dust we shall return we can use our still functioning powers to outwit failing and innately fallible powers of memory.

Sidney Callahan, 80, is a writer, psychologist, and former professor. She is the author most recently in 2011 of “Called to Happiness: Where Faith and Psychology Meet.”