One of my earliest memories, dating from before I was four years old, is of lying down in a darkened room. I can hear footsteps inside my ear canal. Thump. Thump. Thump. Finally I sit up, and a tiny witch on a broomstick flies out of my ear.
I am not in the least surprised. I knew she was in there.
I know now that what I heard was my pulse, my heart pumping blood through my head, but the adult gloss doesn’t remove that vivid image. My tiny witch circled around my head and disappeared. I don’t remember being afraid. If anything, I was delighted.
Another memory from around the same time: my first sight of the stars. As a well-disciplined child, I was sent to bed with the witches well before dark. Being up late was special. In this memory, I am, I think, held in my father’s arms, staring up at the sky, a carnival of miraculous orbs – crimson, emerald, sapphire, gold – blazing in the darkness. I still remember the disappointed fall of my heart when, a few years later, I next saw the night sky: a modest freckling of tiny white stars that bore no resemblance to the flamboyance I remembered.
Given that both these memories are impossible, I have firsthand evidence of my unreliability. That tiny witch carries exactly the same quality of conscious experience as the memories of being on the ship that took me to England when I was four, which is something that I know happened. It was no surprise to me that some scientists now believe that memory is deeply related to imagination. Maybe fiction writers know this instinctively.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in the default assumption that my memory is a type of constantly rolling news footage, an impeccable ongoing record of my life. Maybe we need this assumption to get through the day. But consciously I know memory doesn’t work like this at all, that the neurological processes that create memory, storing and recalling it, are a constant dynamic process of storage, shuffling and retrieval that occurs, not in the past, but in the present.
Even now, after decades of research, neurologists don’t fully understand how memory works. However, we do know that our memories are constantly revised. They exist as neural pathways in the hippocampus and are strengthened with use – which is to say, the more we remember something, the more we remember it. And they can be broken or erased: psychologists know that trauma, especially long-term trauma, has a major impact on the processes of memory, and that this is the cause of PTSD.
Thinking about memory is like stepping into a hall of mirrors, in which anything like truth constantly retreats. How can we know the reality of anything, if even our personal memories might not be real? Memory is, after all, the primary way we build the narratives we know as our selves. Consciously and unconsciously, we craft our memories to support our vision of who we are, creating coherent subjectivities that we tell ourselves are rational, reasonable and truthful.
But we can’t know anything for sure. Both our personal and communal memories consist of a series of constantly negotiated agreements about the nature of reality. And quite often, as a quick saunter through the wilds of internet conspiracy theories (or even the history of science) will confirm, we are entirely capable of being profoundly mistaken. The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature. It’s probably the basis of all our pretences towards civilisation.
Sometimes people straight-out lie, creating an alternative reality to conceal a truth they don’t wish to be publicly known. But people can equally be deceived, sincerely believing realities that don’t exist. We can believe that our inevitably partial knowledge is the whole of reality. We can suppress things we consciously know in order to preserve a cherished perception, until that perception is, to us, the only true reality.
And yet, despite everything, I still believe in the human capacity for truth. Or at least I believe in the possibility of striving towards truthfulness in good faith, a critical oscillation that uses the gifts we have, as conscious human beings, to evaluate what we know and what we think we know against the available evidence. Which is, perhaps, the closest we can get. But we can only do this if we sacrifice the comforts of certainty, even about ourselves. We have to own up to being unreliable narrators.
That can be very difficult. But then, there is that tiny witch.
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