This is Your Brain on Memory: A Conversation with Cognitive Psychologist Jean Pretz by Donna Talarico

Last week, my mom had to set off a flea bomb in her house; my little sister’s kitten got fleas. I reminded my mom of the time when my old kitty, Princess caused our old log cabin to become infested with the same pesky bugs. Mom recalled that, at the time, she didn’t believe me when I told her I was itchy all over, but days later little black dots started to cover her bright white slouch socks.

“It wasn’t Princess. It was Circleton,” she corrected.

“No, it wasn’t Circleton. We had Circleton was when I was much younger and when we lived in the Blue House on 115 with Tony. Tony remembers Circleton, so it had to be Princess.”

“I think you’re wrong, Donna.”

I was very small when I named Circleton. He was a male Siamese cat. He had blue eyes and he was deaf. Because he could not hear, his balance was thrown off and he’d often walk in circles. I made up the name Circleton; it was clever, my parents said. I also remember my parents giving the tiny, special-needs kitten to veterinarians we knew from Pocono Animal Hospital; they could better care for him, they told me. I was devastated. I was in fourth grade and she was dating Gary when we lived in the log cabin, when we had Princess and when we had fleas. I presented all of this evidence during our phone call, but she adamantly insisted Circleton was the feline responsible for the flea circus.

Who is right? Apparently we both are. We believe our own version of the story to be true. And just like my dearly missed kitten, we went around in circles and, finally, changed the subject.

Also in this issue, contributing writer Risa Nye explores the issue of memory and the memoirist. I decided to peer into the brain itself and see why we remember the things we do, and why the squishy mass inside our heads will often play tricks on us. I am fortunate to work at a college with an excellent psychology program, so all I had to do was stroll across campus to speak to Dr. Jean Pretz, associate professor of psychology at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. She answered some of my burning memory questions from the perspective of a cognitive psychologist.

Follow that Script

Time, place, emotional state and impact of an event can affect how we later remember what has happened in our lives.

jean pretz sitting at her office

Dr. Jean Pretz, associate professor of psychology at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, is a cognitive psychologist with research interests in intuition and expertise, implicit cognition, and cognitive processes in creativity. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2004. There, she worked with Robert Sternberg on her dissertation, "Solving life's problems: When to analyze and when to trust your intuition". She received her B.A. from Wittenberg University in 1997, where she double-majored in psychology and music. After college, she spent a year as a Fulbright scholar studying psychology of religion in the former East Germany. (Photo courtesy of Elizabethtown College)

“The phenomenon of false memory is very much influenced by past experiences; when you recall, you are influenced by things you know. Memories aren’t like a voice recorder,” says Pretz.

She explains that we tend to misremember what is not important. The minute details are often forgotten and, in fact, common or repeated tasks and events are somewhat programmed into our memory. These patterns of events are called scripts and scripts are a form of schema. Over time, we develop many scripts. Pretz illustrates this with an example of a restaurant.

“… you are taken to a seat, given a menu, you get a drink, order, you eat food, you pay. Right? Basic,” she says. “When you remember the event later, you are more likely to remember events in the script, remembering what usually happens.”

So, she says, you may not remember that the napkins at one restaurant were green. Who cares? You’ve likely eaten out hundreds of times in your life and most of these events probably align very closely to the restaurant script you’ve developed. We rely upon these scripts to reconstruct events.

“You are likely to remember a schema for recurring events. It is hard to remember specifics if it is not distinct or emotional; it’s just one of many dinners,” she says, adding that if something really out of the ordinary happened in line, you are likely to remember that particular dining experience.

Think of events in your own life. For example, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Every year, your family may follow the same traditions. So when reflecting back, you may make a false assumption that you brought your usual green bean casserole to the gathering in 2002, because that’s what you always do. But perhaps that year you actually experimented with a new dish—unless the replacement recipe caused a fiasco, you likely would just follow your Thanksgiving script when remembering 2002. And 2003. And … you get the point.

What were you doing on June 20, 2009? Since you don’t have a videotape of that day, you could reconstruct.

“The schema can provide that framework. You have isolated facts and an abstract schema; you can start to plug things in. The schema provides a context for memory,” says Pretz.

So you may think, well, it was summer. And mom’s birthday would be in three days. So, I was probably shopping. Oh wait. 2009 was her 50th birthday so, that’s right, yes, we were going to Atlantic City for the weekend. I was probably packing.

Memory is so Emotional

I tend to think I remember certain events better than some of my friends and relatives, especially those that revolve around moving, divorce and other life-changing events I have experienced. I may recall an incident with vivid detail because I was hurt, while an aunt or uncle may have totally forgotten about that same event. I asked Pretz, do people remember better when something was emotional?

“There is evidence that emotional events are remembered better. This is why [memory researchers] always use examples of ‘where were you when JFK was shot?’ or ‘where were you on 9-11?’ – that is the new one,” she explains.

It is the way the brain is wired, according to Pretz. Areas of the brain that control emotions are also connected to the hippocampus, a region of the brain integral to processing long-term memory.

“Emotionally stirring memories are consolidated quickly,” she explains, adding that when there is heightened emotional activity, the brain releases cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol activates the hippocampus, as well as the amygdala, a region of the brain that is stimulated by fear and anger. “Cortisol facilitates the consolidation of memory into long-term memory; it files it quickly.”

Whose Memory is it Anyway?

Sometimes we have memories, but we don’t know where they came from. We are inundated with information these days. And, throughout our lives, we’ve likely heard many, many stories. Where did we learn that fun fact? Was I really there for that event? Did it really go down like that?

“We are not good at remembering where we learned something,” says Pretz. “Our source memory is really bad.”

She illustrates with an example of a politician who, in a speech, may make a remark or rattle off some statistic. We often learn that many speeches contain mistaken information (gotta love those post-speech fact-checkers!). Did I learn this from a report, or from some dude, the politician may think after he realizes his blunder.

Another area of memory that interests me is when we actually begin to remember things. I’ve read several memoirs in which the author recalls vividly details from his or her early, early childhood. While in creative nonfiction we have liberties to recreate details, I wondered if it was possible to remember something from when we were toddlers.

“It is unlikely someone would remember something from when they were that young,” she said, citing infantile amnesia as the cause. “Most of us don’t remember anything before we were four; there is research to support that fact.”

Pretz explained that memories from when we were that young could very well be stories that others told us and then become our own memories.

Remembering What You Forgot

Most of us lack the ability to recall with precision the everyday events and details of our lives. Our memories are awful. So how do those of us aspiring to tell our life stories tell our life stories? We can’t just write about the compelling events alone; we must fill in the blanks with the everyday details, the details which make for a splendid read, the details that bring the setting and characters to life: what we were wearing, what the basement smelled like, what was on the radio, what someone’s kiss felt like, what we ate for dinner, what Mom’s mashed potatoes tasted like.

Looking at photos is one way to research, I suggest to Pretz.

“That would help trigger a memory. You might not ever remember the experience, but that could help in the reconstructive problem-solving process. Looking at photos and other primary resources from when you were little, like a letter, can help,” she says.

A timeline could also help; use important dates as an anchor. Then, you can decide what happened before or after these landmark events.

It is completely normal to not remember every little detail. We can’t. Remember. Our brain doesn’t process the mundane.

“It is adaptive for us to form these schemas to summarize the information,” she says

So, I ask her, is taking an educated guess of details acceptable when writing a memoir?

“I would think so, because how would you know? Your memory skips the little details because they are not important, like in the restaurant script,” she explains. “Whatever you make up is probably consistent with the schema because you are reconstructing it logically.”

That brings me back to Mom and Circleton and Princess. We’ve both reconstructed the flea fiasco logically. And we still arrived at different results. Memory is a bitch indeed. And the brain is still in many ways an absolutely freaking fascinating marvel of mystery.

No matter the science behind it, we all have the incredible capability to close our eyes and relive the most amazing—and not so amazing—parts of lives, even if they are in scattered fragments. Our memories are our private sanctuaries, a private file folder that no one, not even Big Brother, can access. Who cares if our mental instant (or not-so-instant) replays vary from those of others who shared in those same moments? How we processed those memories and what they meant to us while they were captured very much contributes to the way in which we still react to those memories, in how we remember them and how we write about them. Our memories are our memories alone. And, for that reason, memoirists should open up that blank document with confidence.

And that is why, for me, Princess had fleas.

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WE ASK: Readers, what memory ‘arguments’ have you had with others? Comment below.

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