Dragons and Deceit – The Memory Paradox

Dragon Abnormal Living

Sir Reinold the Heroic, arrived back in the small village of Balash today.  Back from his long crusade to seek out and slay the evil dragon Tamolth. Tamolth dwelled in the far off lands of Leotterion in the Lifeless Bog where most never dared to set foot. When he arrived he was carrying the deadly beast’s head and riding his mighty steed Draco… Why don’t stories like this exist anymore?  Or at least why have they fallen into the fictional category and belief in such things has become extinct? To answer this we must first fully understand why we used to believe whole heartedly in their existence. Not so long ago were we so naive to tall tales of fantasy, or was there more to it?


After just scratching the surface we might conclude that we used to spend more time making up stories and trying to fool people. Thinking maybe that the reason for their disappearance resulted from our increased ability to disprove stories with modern science and increasing wealth of knowledge. Knowledge that eventually lead to the internet and a world view that is harder to fool with such tall tails. Although some of this is true, I am going to put into question the part that anyone was actually lying when they told these tall tails.

Faulty Hard Drives

When people want to tell stories based on past events they dive into their memories for records of what happened. The misconception is that our memory actually keeps a good record of past events in any sort of detail.

To fully understand how memory works lets use the example of watching a movie. Imagine sitting down to watch a movie and every 5 minutes skipping ahead 5 minutes. Then write out the details of what happened in the time you missed with accuracy. You might say this is absurd because the possibilities are endless. You are absolutely right and the scary part is, this is exactly how memory works and the gaps in our memory become larger as time passes from the original event.

“Hold on! I personally wouldn’t just make things up!” And I think that this is true for most people, but what you don’t know is that your subconscious mind absolutely would, and over time the story changes on us without knowing. This study example shows what I mean.

A study done by Dr. Daniel Offer interviewed a group of adolescence on many topics to gather a detailed snap shot of what their life was like. Questions ranging from family views to religious views. The study participants were brought in for a second round of questioning, again on the exact same questions. This was done when they were now adjusted late middle-aged individuals. To their surprise “The data showed that there is essentially no correlation between what the subjects as adults thought and felt about their adolescence and what they actually thought and felt when they were adolescents.”  The study participants’ memory of those times were guesses for the most part. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Offer#Adolescent_psychiatry

So our memory is faulty at the best of times on even ones core values in life.  However, even worse we have a tendency to think we are recalling things more accurately than we are. It’s like missing a portion of the movie and never asking the question, “What did I miss?” 

If we had a hard drive that worked like our memory does, we would toss it!

If we had a hard drive that worked like our memory does, we would toss it!

Two-Sides to Every Coin

Examining first what goes into memory in the first place is a good start to investigating this problem. We remember and commit into memory only the details that had meaning to us. And logically why would we try to remember anything that lacked meaning in our eyes. This means that the record keeper inside us creates a very bias picture of past events based on our personal feelings about each and every situation. We are turning the video recorder off every time we feel something is unimportant, even though it might be a crucial detail in retelling the story in the future. In the case of small delinquent children they remember all the terrible things their parents did but never the things they did that made them deserving of punishment. Transitioning into adulthood these same children think their parents were very strict even though they might have just been a handful and requiring of more punishment to keep on the right track. (Personal Offence Disclaimer: I’m not talking about you specifically 😉 )  So what of those unimportant details now missing from the log books?

Fill In The Blanks

Another misconception is that people who tell very detailed stories have a good memory. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule, it is more often the story teller is just better at the self deception game than others. They are usually individuals with strong egos, and they fall pray to the lie story tellers often tell themselves. “This is how it must have happened.” This is a clever way of filling in the blanks by creating logical conclusions. Using our knowledge of what we would do in those situations today, the memories are recreated. We use our current values and believes to recreate what we must have done then, with what we know now.

This clever trick would be great if it were not for the fact we have ever changing values and beliefs. This means when we use this trick to recreate, we are doing so with our bias beliefs we now hold, not the ones from the time the memory was created. As time passes we become more and more inconsistent with the version of ourself we are telling the story about. Therefore we are less and less qualified to accurately fill in those blanks with anything truthful as time passes.

The shortest real life version of this memory problem can be seen at a fast paced sporting event where we don’t always have all the information. In the event of a close call, vision can sometimes not provide enough information to make an accurate assessment. Our personal bias unconsciously takes over recreating how it must have happened. Each side is screaming and yelling that their side has the correct call. It is only when they show the slow motion replay that the truth comes out. People get upset at sporting events thinking people are trying to cheat or be dishonest when really their brains are just fooling them by giving them a bias view of the events.

Close call Volleyball

A close call in the fast paced sport of Volleyball.

So we fall victim to, ‘what it must have been like’ lines of thinking and are constantly rewriting history to be consistent with the current you. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) memory is accurately described as the “Self Serving Historian”, that rewrites history to be consistent with the current you, in an effort to maintain your self image.This allows us to constantly change our views and beliefs while maintaining the false sense of being a consistent human being.

So where is the dragon from the story at the beginning of this post?  He exists in the minds of the story tellers where he was born. As a story is retold it is enhanced by the heroes becoming more heroic, the journeys more daunting and the beasts slain more mighty! This is because these are the details that were important and memorable. The gaps between were updated as time went on through generations of story tellers.

This story could have even began with a guy named Rick.  Rick was just taking a stroll into the swamp out back to get rid of that damn snake that had been eating up some of the live stalk. What people remember about Rick was that he was brave and tough as nails! It’s not unlikely that this story transforms into a great quest if never written down and only communicated in the form of story telling. A story now told in full conviction of truth but has been transformed over time by each person’s beliefs on how it must have happened. No one is lying, they are all just using a faulty means of remembering events called memory.

“Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.” – John Dewey American Philosopher and Psychologist

Recap of things to be mindful of in using memory:

  • Memory is faulty at best, only recording what has meaning from your bias perspective.
  • The details fade over time however we recall fluent reconstructed stories.
  • Your unconscious self serving historian will rewrite history by making logical conclusions based on new and updated values and beliefs.

– Chris


Note: I normally like to provide solutions with the issues I write about in my posts or it just comes across as complaining. This one was too long however and needed to be split up.  A part 2 is coming with great solutions to the above predicaments. 🙂


Click for References:
  1. If you enjoyed this article you would really enjoy reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris