I remember... or do I?

It's a common experience to find ourselves disagreeing with a sibling or friend about exactly what happened in the past: "Do you remember when you ate my ice-cream that day on the beach?" "No, I didn't – you ate mine!" Disconcertingly, studies show that we tend to remember the version of events that puts us into the best possible light. And the confidence we have in our recollections is no indicator of accuracy either. 

Memories are not always accurate records of what has happened to us. In fact, our brains alter our memories all the time. We fill in the gaps of incomplete recollections, adjust our memories when we hear new information and keep 'over-recording' the original memory as we try to make sense of it. We can remember things that never happened (psychologists have proved this in research studies). Our subjective interpretation of what's happening (eg are those students fighting or playing?) will also influence the memory that's stored. Telling (or hearing) another person's story repeatedly can also make it feel familiar and seem like our own memory.

As neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote: "It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened – or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arise from others' suggestions, which powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten."

Neuroscientists have used brain scans to show that recalling a particular memory can cause us to completely forget another similar memory. According to Dr Maria Wimber, "Our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realise in shaping what they remember of their lives." It seems our brains actively delete memories that might distract us; so we are guiding the brains into encoding to memory the things that we continually focus on – good or bad.

If our memories will be based largely on what we focus on most, we need to be mindful of what is taking up our attention (eg rumination on negative events). Also, the realisation that our memories can be faulty (and often are) can also help us to let go of old grievances, once we realise that we have probably re-painted the scene many times in our heads – and it may never have happened that way.