Can I trust my memory of the past?

The major­i­ty of peo­ple are aware that we have a lapse in our mem­o­ry for cer­tain events- but how much of this mem­o­ry is based on our own expe­ri­ence? There have been many exper­i­ments that demon­strate that the accu­ra­cy of our mem­o­ries is often faulty and unre­li­able. In one such exper­i­ment, indi­vid­ual had to remem­ber the faces and names of a group of peo­ple from an inter­view with some­one who took part in it. 

At the end, they found out half had an accu­rate rec­ol­lec­tion and half did not. Our mem­o­ries are just as eas­i­ly dis­tort­ed by what we want them to be as they are by what actu­al­ly hap­pened. This post is an attempt to illus­trate if your mem­o­ry of the past true or just an illu­sion, which you can’t trust on.

Is our memory of the past true or just an illusion?

Trust past memory

Let’s start with the reli­a­bil­i­ty of our mem­o­ries. When we look to the past, par­tic­u­lar­ly to our child­hoods, it seems as if that the things we remem­ber are not always the same as the things that actu­al­ly hap­pened. In fact, a huge leap in recent years has been to dis­cuss mem­o­ry as a more mal­leable thing. It is not just made up of facts held in place like tacks on a bul­letin board; rather, it is a flu­id enti­ty that includes feel­ings and emo­tions and reconstructions. 

We have all had the expe­ri­ence of remem­ber­ing events dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on our mood or even what we think about them today. Our mood can dis­tort our mem­o­ries at the time or what we are going through at present. Remem­ber­ing an unpleas­ant event from our past also can make it more vivid and “real” than the actu­al event.

Example 1
  • When we expe­ri­ence trau­ma, our brain rewires itself to pro­tect us. Every time we are in a sit­u­a­tion that feels even vague­ly like the sit­u­a­tion that brought on the trau­ma, our brain can trig­ger strong reac­tions as if we were reliv­ing the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. The same thing applies to peo­ple who feel anx­ious or depressed. When they recall dis­tress­ing past events, they tend to exag­ger­ate and col­or them with their feel­ings of mood at present. We call this phe­nom­e­non the state-depen­dent memory.
Example 2
  • When teenagers look back at their high school days they tend to remem­ber it as a time of fun and relax­ation. The mem­o­ries of our teens are a bit like the mem­o­ries of our par­rots; they repeat what they hear and see in their present stage. How­ev­er, when we reflect on our high school years from the per­spec­tive of adult­hood, we can rein­ter­pret those expe­ri­ences and see them in a more neg­a­tive light. An event that was fun­ny at the time, we may see now as embar­rass­ing and ridicule lat­er in life.
Example 3
  • How­ev­er, we become more accu­rate when we look at some­thing that is cul­tur­al­ly mean­ing­ful. We are more like­ly to remem­ber things that may have hap­pened in a spe­cif­ic time and place. For exam­ple, when we look back at a child­hood mem­o­ry from an Asian fam­i­ly, we will tend to remem­ber it as if it were nor­mal and expect­ed. On the oth­er hand, if we were raised in an Anglo-Sax­on cul­ture, we might remem­ber our child­hoods as much more dif­fi­cult than they actu­al­ly were. The fact that we tend to remem­ber the things that fit the cul­ture we live in at present makes us dif­fi­cult to trust our past memory.

Interesting! Do past, present and future exist simultaneously?

Time is such a thing that we can’t see it or touch. It is the one thing we can’t feel but we still need it to iden­ti­fy the rela­tion­ships between all the events and things that occur around us. We take it for grant­ed but there are still many ques­tions about its nature.

One of the most impor­tant ques­tions relat­ed to time is whether or not present, past and future exist at the same time or if they are just a con­tin­u­um. The expla­na­tion of time seems straight­for­ward but there are some prob­lems when peo­ple try to explain this in words. The real­i­ty of time is such that we can’t make sense of it with our minds and sci­ence has trou­ble explain­ing it in math­e­mat­i­cal terms.

Anoth­er ques­tion is whether or not time is real or it is just an illu­sion. If we take a look at the nature of space, it seems to have more phys­i­cal real­i­ty. Space seems to be a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of our world and we can all agree on the same dimen­sions. And on the oth­er hand, it does­n’t seem that every­one agrees on what makes up time, like sec­onds and minutes. 

One per­son might think of time as some­thing in the future or in their past, while anoth­er per­son thinks about how far away some­thing is in terms of dis­tance instead of dura­tion. There does­n’t seem to be any stan­dard for time mea­sure­ment and yet most peo­ple still have a sense of what time it should be based on their cul­tur­al conditioning.

More discourse on understanding time

Time seems to be a fun­da­men­tal aspect of our world and cul­ture. We need it to order our whole lives and we have many ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing about it with oth­ers. There are so many aspects of our lives that seem to depend on time, like mon­ey, dead­lines and appointments. 

Even though there is no uni­ver­sal stan­dard for mea­sur­ing time, we still seem to agree on cer­tain things about what are the best times for cer­tain activ­i­ties like eat­ing din­ner or going to work. In fact, we all seem to agree that moments in the past and future don’t exist at all because they aren’t in the present.

But when we look at the nature of time, we can’t make sense of it in the same way that we can make sense of space. The prob­lem is that there is no one stan­dard for time. And we tend to have very dif­fer­ent atti­tudes about what we should con­sid­er time. This makes it more dif­fi­cult to explain and to under­stand pre­cise­ly how time works in our world.

A way of mea­sur­ing time that seems to work in our cul­ture is the dig­i­tal clock. We usu­al­ly find this device on a wall that dis­plays num­bers or text on a small com­put­er screen. A clock like this has become so com­mon­place in our lives that few peo­ple pay atten­tion to how it works or how far back its dig­its go.

What does it mean by our past memory?

If past, present and future exist at the same time, what it means by our past mem­o­ry and how it’s relat­ed to time is a cen­tral ques­tion. We can per­ceive mem­o­ry in the past as some­thing that is dis­tort­ed depend­ing on our cur­rent mood or what we are expe­ri­enc­ing in our present lives. For exam­ple, when we expe­ri­ence stress, we can remem­ber dis­tress­ing things from our past dif­fer­ent­ly than what actu­al­ly happened.

In terms of time, if past and present exist at the same time, does­n’t it mean that they are just a part of the group? As human beings we do tend to val­ue these moments more than oth­ers like days gone by. We often remem­ber events of times gone by with much more clar­i­ty than events in the future and even those from days or weeks ago are eas­i­ly recalled. 

We have a con­stant flow of thoughts from the present moment to the past and from our past back to the present. When we reflect on the nature of time, if past, present and future all exist at the same point, it means that all of these are actu­al­ly just a continuum.

There is no doubt that our minds can cre­ate illu­sions about time. When we focus on moments in the past or future all of the moments from those peri­ods must be account­ed for, oth­er­wise we would lose the advan­tage of pre­dictabil­i­ty in the future or to expect things in our lives. Accord­ing to this view, there is no such thing as a moment that exists with­out being observed, except in sci­ence fic­tion movies.

Past memory distortion and controversies 

Past memory distortion

On the oth­er hand, if past and present exist at dif­fer­ent points, this means that a mem­o­ry from the past is actu­al­ly just a mem­o­ry. Such mem­o­ries are a way of tap­ping into this con­tin­u­um and they are not equal. With the pas­sage of time, mem­o­ries expe­ri­ence more vivid­ness and detail. 

When we remem­ber a spe­cif­ic moment from the past, we can make it seem more real than what actu­al­ly unfold­ed. Mem­o­ries from the past are sub­ject to change just like our cur­rent mem­o­ries are. There is no one moment that exists in iso­la­tion in time, unless it is an extra­or­di­nary moment in an excep­tion­al life that is remem­bered as a result of chance or luck.


It seems that there isn’t a clear answer to this ques­tion of whether past, present and future do exist at the same point or if they are all linked togeth­er as a con­tin­u­um. It becomes even more dif­fi­cult when we con­sid­er how mem­o­ries are cre­at­ed and how they form in our minds over time. Although dis­cours­es may gen­er­ate many more con­tro­ver­sies on the issue, there is no doubt that this nature of time is very impor­tant in shap­ing our lives. 

Whether we think of time as a con­tin­u­um or not, past, present and future all exist in the same moment. We can recall mem­o­ries in the past with more detail than those from the future. But, they are still just a part of our past lives and we can’t use to pre­dict what hap­pens next.


The phys­i­cal­ly unde­tectable time and the past mem­o­ry, a mys­te­ri­ous men­tal activ­i­ty, both are essen­tial parts of life for human beings, but we don’t always under­stand, trust and know how to explain them clear­ly. How­ev­er, we do seem to agree on cer­tain things about it like how long a day should last or how far away some­thing is in terms of dis­tance. At the same time, we don’t agree about things like how long a sec­ond is or what frac­tion of time we can call present. Sim­i­lar­ly, as it’s an essen­tial phe­nom­e­non to sur­vive, we can trust on our mem­o­ry of the past incase it’s jus­ti­fi­able on the basis of social, cul­tur­al and behav­ioral conditionings.

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