Lost Memories

"Traveling" and Returning Safely to Now

Traveling through time and returning safely to now by using your mental GPS.

According to Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, we are all time travelers. We travel into the past; vividly remembering yesterday, last week, and previous decades. We also travel to the future; planning the weekend, imagining next year, and daydreaming about retirement. Sometimes we intentionally remember the past and imagine the future. But frequently our minds wander unintentionally. Instead of focusing on what we are doing now, we relive our past glories and daydream about tomorrow. The trick is to not get lost. When we find ourselves wandering through the yesterdays in our minds, how do we get back to the correct future – to now? When we're flying along in our time traveling mental sports cars, how do we know when to stop? How do we keep track of now? Getting home safely after time traveling is a critical job for memory. Memory both takes us into the past and brings us safely home. In addition, our memories of the past allow us to create a vision of the future. Memory provides the maps so we don’t get lost.

We can time travel without fear of getting lost because our memories are constantly updated by our most recent experiences. Each time we have a new event within a set of experiences, that new memory becomes the experience most strongly connected to that set of events. That new memory will become the easiest event to remember – a phenomenon known as the recency effect. Not only are the recent experiences the strongest memories, but the previous memories get weaker and harder to recall with every new episode. Keeping now distinct from our plans, hopes, and dreams of the future works similarly. Imagining the future is a common human activity. We daydream possible futures by building on past experiences. But no matter how vivid our daydreams, they are ephemeral wisps compared to the world around us and compared to our recent memories. Marcia Johnson and her colleagues have often described this as a process of reality monitoring. In reality monitoring, we use the clarity of images and ideas to differentiate between what we’ve done and what we’ve only imagined doing.


Of course, the process of reality monitoring can break down – our imagining of something can appear so clear and complete as to appear like a memory. Then we can create false memories...


Kemo D. 7

Art by Frank Frazetta

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