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The Memory Paradox: How Our Stories Shape Us, Even as They Shift and Change

An image of a catamaran in the open ocean
The ship of Theseus

As I sat listening to a recent episode of RadioLab, a podcast that weaves together science, philosophy, and human experience, I found myself grappling with the intricate workings of human memory.


The episode delved into the remarkable malleability of memory, challenging my assumptions about the reliability of personal narratives.


As the founder of Talking Stories, a memoir service in Brisbane dedicated to recording life stories, I couldn't help but wonder: how do we ensure the fidelity of the stories we tell?


The podcast episode began with anecdotes from Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist who has spent his career studying the physical and psychological dimensions of memory.


Through his work, LeDoux discovered that memories are tangible traces in the brain, composed of proteins. His research investigated how memories are formed, stored, and potentially altered.

LeDoux challenges the long-held notion that memories are immutable once formed.

As a neuroscientist, his findings emerged from experiments he conducted on rats, as well as from the contributions of psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus.

According to LeDoux, "Every time we remember something, we're actually remembering the last time we remembered it, not the event itself, which means the memory can change over time."

So, if we are altering the memory of the events in our life every time we remember it, at some point, the altered version could be as far removed from the original as the ship of Theseus.

This raises a question about truth, and in this context (storytelling and oral history), how much should it matter?  

The Ship of Theseus, or the Theseus paradox is a timeless thought experiment that has long fascinated philosophers and scientists.

This paradoxical conundrum raises fundamental questions about the very essence of identity, change, and the human experience.

Imagine the ship in which Theseus bravely sailed to Crete, vanquishing the Minotaur, undergoing a gradual transformation over time.

As each weathered plank and worn sail is replaced with new ones, a curious inquiry emerges: at what point does this ship, now composed of entirely different components, cease to be the original vessel?

In the context of human memory and storytelling, the Thesus paradox reminds us that even the most seemingly fixed details in our memory might undergo transformations upon recollection or retelling, leaving us to ponder the nature of truth and the power of narrative.

Elizabeth Loftus's research, on the other hand, revealed the remarkable malleability of memory, showcasing how false memories can be implanted in individuals (quite easily, in fact).

In her experiments, Loftus and her colleagues showed that entirely fabricated memories can be implanted into people's minds without drugs or hooking a person to a machine.

For example, they successfully implanted a memory in some subjects of being lost and frightened in a shopping mall as a child, ultimately being rescued by an adult and reunited with their family.

Loftus showcased how subtle suggestions or external influences can profoundly impact the accuracy and reliability of memories, challenging our assumptions about the infallibility of our recollections and raising questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the validity of repressed memories.

Despite the controversies and challenges surrounding this research, it underscores the importance of understanding the complexities of memory.

Implications for life story services like Talking Stories

As storytellers, we strive to capture and convey the essence of a person's narrative, but if memory itself is prone to distortion, how can we ensure the accuracy of the stories we tell?

This realisation evokes a sense of disillusionment, as it challenges the notion of objective truth and casts doubt on the accuracy of personal recollections.


However, despite the limitations of memory, there is still value in storytelling and the exploration of personal narratives.


While individual memories may be subject to bias or manipulation, the overarching themes, emotions, and insights embedded within these stories can still hold meaning and resonance.


It is not always the factual accuracy of a memory that matters most, but rather the emotional truth it conveys and the lessons it imparts to the listener.

In fact, this emotional truth is often what makes a story truly unforgettable, and it's precisely this quality that we cherish in the stories that are passed down to us.

You might have heard your best friend or parent spin the same yarn over and over again at the dinner table, and it's precisely this kind of storytelling that illustrates the power of emotional truth.

Despite knowing that the tale may not be factually accurate, you listen to every intonation with the same intensity, because it's the emotional resonance that truly matters. And it's when they no longer tell the yarn, that you value it the most - not its factual accuracy, but the emotional connection it represents.

As storytellers and interviewers, we can approach our craft with humility and awareness of the limitations of memory.


We can strive to create a space where individuals feel empowered to share their stories authentically, while also recognising the inherent complexity and subjectivity of memory.


By embracing this complexity, we are navigating the nuances of storytelling with sensitivity and integrity, honouring the richness of human experience while acknowledging the fallibility of memory.

And so, we are reminded of the importance of capturing these stories sooner rather than later, before the memory begin to fray and fade.

By initiating the recording process earlier, we can preserve the originality, emotional truths and insights that these stories hold, and ensure that the details of those experiences are not lost to the passage of time.


Our emphasis on audio interviews resonates deeply with this complexity.

The power of audio lies in its ability to engage the listener on a deeply personal level, evoking emotions and imagery that can resonate long after the interview ends.


Audio interviews allow listeners to create their own memories and subjective truths, forging a meaningful connection with the storyteller and the narrative being shared.


In this way, the emotional significance of the storytelling experience is preserved in the authenticity of the voice.


In the end, it is not the facts or memories themselves that matter most (in this context), but the emotional truths and insights that they convey.

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