Magazine article The Spectator

Airbrushing out and Filling In

Magazine article The Spectator

Airbrushing out and Filling In

Article excerpt

Airbrushing out and filling in HOW THE MIND FORGETS AND REMEMBERS: THE SEVEN SINS OF MEMORY by Daniel L. Schacter Souvenir, L18.99, pp. 206, ISBN 0285636839

If one ever wonders just how important memory is to our selfhood, consider patients in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease. The condition as good as demonstrates that there is no after-life, because if you can be dead when you are alive, then you can certainly be dead when you arc dead. Without memory our minds are nothing, which should have made the cynical among us realise long ago that something so important could not possibly be fully under our control. According to the research psychologist Daniel Schacter, memory is far from the passive aide we imagine - the dutiful if fallible servant who hopefully brings us what we need, when we need it. Memory is rather one who alternates nights of mischief while his lordship is away with moments of well-intentioned artifice, like the butler who concocts fan letters for his faded movie star mistress in Sunset Boulevard.

Schacter shows how our memories are constantly inventing and obscuring the truth behind our backs, plugging gaps and remoulding the past to suit the present. For example, in the light of a known outcome we more easily recall incidents that confirm it. When a murderer turns out to be the very same father of the victim who gave a tearful plea for information on the television, we immediately remember how we could 'see the guilt in his eyes' and really 'knew all along', though for some reason we omitted to mention it at the time. On the other hand, if accounts of recollection are not to be trusted, the author needs reminding that neither arc those of forgetfulness. It should seem at least suspicious that one's friend's alcoholic amnesia never seems to blot out his big casino wins or trysts with top models, and takes care only to excise the moment when he kissed the transvestitc.

The subtitle is correct to brand mnemonic vices 'sins', because they produce the same shame as ordinary wrongdoing when you forget an anniversary or the name of an acquaintance. …

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