This week saw the anniversaries of two significant events — the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  What struck me is that the memories of each event are very different, and not just because no one is currently alive who witnessed the former.

Joel Agee has written two memoirs — Twelve Years and In the House of My Fear.  In an essay for Harper’s Magazine, he reflects on writing his first memoir, saying, “I learned that to remember is, at least in part, to imagine, and that the act of transposing memory into written words is a creative act that transforms the memory itself” (“A Lie That Tells the Truth: Memoir and the art of memory,” November 2007, 55).  He also cites a social psychologist from Harvard named Daniel Gilbert, whose experiments “have ‘left most scientists convinced of two things.  First, the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously'” (56).

Speaking of psychologists, Elizabeth Loftus delivered a TED Talk on 23 September 2013 entitled “The fiction of memory.”  She focuses her research on false memories, asserting that “when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.”  She explains that “our memories are constructive.  They’re reconstructive.  Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page.  You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”  Loftus contends that confidence, emotion, and detail do not necessarily guarantee the accuracy of memories.

In the 1970s, psychologists advanced a “flashbulb memory” theory that suggested traumatic events produce more detailed memories.  This encouraged the “where were you when” phenomenon that we witnessed again this week, with countless re-tellings of what occurred on November 22, 1963.  But in a 2003 study at Duke, the findings demonstrated that there is no greater accuracy in our memories of traumatic events — just a greater perceived accuracy.  This study was conducted in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and the conclusion was that people had discussed the events so frequently in the intervening months and relived the events in TV footage to the end that they felt more secure about their memories.

This reminds me of the polls that have been conducted on the U.S. war in Iraq.  A 2003 study found three common misperceptions among Americans:

  1. U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  2. Saddam Hussein worked closely with the September 11th terrorists.
  3. People in other countries generally supported or were evenly split about the U.S.-led war.

But rather than gaining clarity with time, a 2006 survey indicated that the percentage of Americans believing we found WMDs in Iraq had actually increased.  So I have to ask myself what factors — other than truth — are shaping people’s memories.  How and why do we fill in the details in our memories?

Obviously, Lincoln lived in an era lacking in 24-hour news cycles and the blogosphere.  Yet he still faced criticism, with his Gettysburg Address being widely panned at the time.  One such newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, recently issued a retraction of its critique of Lincoln’s remarks, which at the time they called “silly.”  With this event, hindsight provides an understanding of the impact and import of Lincoln’s speech, so it seems to me that this paper is merely trying to get on the right side of history.

So then why haven’t our “memories” of 21st century events also improved with the clarity of hindsight — but instead get more inaccurate as time goes on?  If this is the result of all the improvements in the speed and reach of communications technologies, it does not bode well for the future of our memories.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kennedy’s assassination, the JFK Presidential Library has digitized many relevant records.  The records of the investigation by the Dallas police are also available online.  And if you’d like to read the various versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, they’ve also been put online.

(NOTE: the title of today’s post comes from the title song from The Way We Were, written by Marvin Hamlisch and Marilyn and Alan Bergman and preformed by Barbra Streisand.  For a tangentially-related look at how lyrics are often misheard — and then misremembered — you can read this article from the New York Daily News.)