The greatest storyteller of all is not who you think, but it is not a distant second either!
A recent article in Scientific American discussed how memories get rewritten and stored in long term memory and how they sometimes change in the process as people focus on certain details and forget others.
It’s a little like what happens in a computer hard drive as things get deleted and the operating system moves the information around the drive to tidy it up and make it run more effectively. On the other hand, hard drives usually make very good if not perfect copies and don’t loose bits along the way, unless someone consciously deletes them. The brain’s hardware and software are still very obscure, but one things is certain, it unconsciously rewrites personal stories.
In a recent This American Life podcast, Ira Glass recounted the story of a teenager named Emir Kamenica, who escaped the deadly Yugoslavia civil war of the early 90s and wound up living in a dangerous neighborhood of Atlanta’s suburb. If it weren’t for one substitute teacher who found one of his papers so well written that she went out of her way to convince a local private school to give him a scholarship, he is convinced he would not have gone on to Harvard and would not have become an economics professor at the University of Chicago School of Business.
But our scholar had a dirty secret. The paper in question was not his writing but an excerpt from a book he stole from a library just before leaving Croatia and which he decided to translate into English for this assigment. Twenty years later, NPR hired a Private Investigator to find the teacher and give this plagiarizer-turned-scholar a chance to apologize to and thank the person whom he thought had such a profound impact on his life.
After a difficult search, NPR finally found the wonderful teacher. She immediately knew which kid the NPR producer was contacting her about because she always knew Emir would go very far. They quickly realized that she had a very different version of the facts remembered and recounted by Emir. First, she was not a substitute teacher, she was his English teacher for the entire semester and she did not remember the paper in question. She remembered that she was stricken by how good his English was and at how he had diagrammed sentences on the blackboard to explain them to the rest of his class.
Other fact checks showed that Emir’s memory of his youth in Atlanta was not as sharp as he thought. And it was very hard for someone of his intellect to wrap his arms around some of the fundamental changes to the great narrative he had apparently constructed over the years. The social isolation he had experienced when he was dropped into a harsh new world he did not understand had probably led him to put a friendly teacher on a pedestal and then to construct a rags to riches story that was a lot more interesting than the actual events.
In fact, his success was more the result of a talent he was born with than that of not an accidental encounter with a good angel waiting to get her wings. It’s difficult to say for sure but the guilt of betraying the trust of someone who cared was probably the event that triggered this type of unconscious interpretative rewriting in his brain.
This story as well as advancements in our understanding of the brain clearly show how humans are wired to interpret and transform their life’s narrative as they grow older. Yes, the brain is the greatest storyteller! Even when we don’t realize it, our brain is constantly rewriting the draft of our life story until that fateful day when we can no longer reflect upon it. Let it be a lesson to all those who do not have a journal to chronicle their daily lives and thoughts.
However depressing it can be to think about all the forgotten truths of our past, rewriting one’s personal story can yield many benefits, most notably healing. After all, wasn’t the first story told by the protagonist of Life of Pi much more entertaining than the truth?!