ARE OUR MEMORIES RELIABLE RECORDS OF OUR LIFE HISTORY?
In some ways, I suppose we can say that it is our memories that define our history; what we are able to recount of our past, becomes commemorated and remembered in the present and future. If I am able to recall the experience of me bungee jumping down in New Zealand, that becomes written as part of my life history.
Now we introduce a hypothetical scenario. Suppose that when you were 6, you had a bad fall while rollerblading that caused a huge gash on your left forearm. Since then, the wound has long healed, but a nasty scar remains, as a constant reminder of that terrible accident. Because of the nature of the incident, you have not told anyone of how you ended up with the scar, but kept it hidden away from everyone else.
And suddenly, you experience a separate, significant impact to your head that has somehow rearranged your memories, causing you to forget about the rollerblading accident. What happens next? What will happen when you reexamine that scar on your arm years down the road? What would that scar mean to you? “Oh I don’t remember how I got that scar… must have been quite a horrible experience though”, or “beats me. I never really asked that question”? When you show that scar to the people around you, no one knows how you got it. “Err, did you slip and fall in the jungle and got cut on the rocky ground?”, or “Hmm, it looks like something sharp pierced your flesh there. Do you remember any incidents involving razor blades?”
If I may draw an analogy to this scenario, our memories are like a roll of film in cameras, storing pictures as visions of our past in the form of negatives. Suffering such a loss of memory can be likened to erasing the negatives in the middle section of the roll of film, leaving a curious blank behind. Anyone who observes such an oddity would definitely ask the question: What was in that blank? Why did that blank appear in the first place?
But unlike a roll of film, a brain is capable of constructing ideas, thoughts, and memories entirely on its own. In due time, perhaps the minds might build new memories independently to bridge the gap in the film. The mind might do it so well that our present self will no longer be able to discern between this “fake memory” and the rest of the real experiences. At this point, one might even go about explaining the existence of the scar based on this newly constructed, entirely imaginary memory: “The truth, is that I was riding a bike down a steep incline and I lost my balance when my bike hit a boulder, and subsequently I hit the hard ground and got that gash on my arm.” It may be so convincing that now, everyone (including yourself) accepts this as the new “truth”.
So now, if you have accepted the “fact” that your scar was indeed caused by that biking incident rather than tripping over your rollerblades, then does this mean you have never had that rollerblading accident when you were 6? Does this make your biking experience… real? What is reality? What exactly makes up our life history? Are our memories still reliable records for our experiences and life history? How sure are you that you have actually experienced what has been preserved in your memories? Are they as real as your mind perceives them to be?