Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Embellishment of Memory: Humans as “Consummate Bullshitters”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on October 22, 2011


This isn’t specifically about the Civil War, but it’s highly relevant to the study of the war, because we all rely so heavily on memoirs and years-later reminiscences to understand the events of 1861-65. Via Sullivan, Jonah Lehrer looks at studies of how peoples’ accounts of past events changes over time:

Humans are storytelling machines. We don’t passively perceive the world – we tell stories about it, translating the helter-skelter of events into tidy narratives. This is often a helpful habit, helping us make sense of mistakes, consider counterfactuals and extract a sense of meaning from the randomness of life.

But our love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction. Just the other day I learned that one of my cherished childhood tales – the time my older brother put hot peppers in my Chinese food while I was in the bathroom, thus scorching my young tongue – actually happened to my little sister. I’d stolen her trauma.

The reason we’re such consummate bullshitters is simple: we bullshit for each other. We tweak our stories so that they become better stories. We bend the facts so that the facts appeal to the group. Because we are social animals, our memory of the past is constantly being revised to fit social pressures.

My emphasis. So much for the concept. How does it play out in practice? The effect is profound:

Consider an investigation of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001. A few days after the tragic attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps began interviewing people about their personal experiences. In the years since, the researchers have tracked the steady decay of these personal stories. They’ve shown, for instance, that subjects have dramatically changed their recollection of how they first learned about the attacks. After one year, 37 percent of the details in their original story had changed. By 2004, that number was approaching 50 percent. The scientists have just begun analyzing their ten year follow-up data, but it will almost certainly show that the majority of details from that day are now inventions. Our 9/11 tales are almost certainly better – more entertaining, more dramatic, more reflective of that awful day – but those improvements have come at the expense of the truth. Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t.

This last part is really important, and bears as well on the limitations of eyewitness testimony. Whenever people witness an event — a fender-bender in the parking lot, an argument between co-workers, the assault on Little Round Top — their perspective is necessarily different from that of other witnesses, and usually incomplete. Human memory is not a simple video recorder that inscribes a fixed and unchanging record of what we see and do; it’s fluid and dynamic process that changes over time. Our brains are wired by evolution and experience to makes sense of all those sensory inputs, to help us understand and react to what we’ve seen. In the process, we fill in gaps and make assumptions that establish a more coherent narrative to ourselves. This is involuntary and mostly unconscious. Such embellishment is not lying or deception, but neither does it reflect actual reality. When you combine that phenomenon with the multi-generational game of “telephone” which is the way most family histories are passed down, it’s a wonder that anything true comes down to us through memory. As I said a while back, referring to a relative of mine,

None of this diminishes the value of the memoirs of old veterans like Daffan, but it does remind us that, even as important as they are as the record of the men who were there, they nonetheless have real limitations. Their tales of battle, hardship, humor and adventure are only as complete as they themselves recalled them.

Or were willing to.

Image: Union veteran and child, via here.


7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Margaret D. Blough said, on October 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Andy-There is a wonderful discourse on memory from John Batchelder himself as recounted in on pp. 39-40 of Morris Schaff’s “The Battle of the Wilderness” (1910) (Schaff was a junior officer in the Army of the Potomac during the battle):

    >>There was an incident in our life at Brandy, connected with Gettysburg, which possibly is worth relating. Batchelder, whose map of the battlefield of Gettysburg is authority, and whom we had fallen in with while we were there, asked to join our mess at Brandy when he came to the army to verify the positions of the various commands. One night, just after we had sat down to dinner, he entered quite tired. “Well,” he announced, taking his place at the table, “I have been in the Second Corps to-day, and I believe I have discovered how Joshua made the sun stand still.I first went to regiment and had the officers mark on the map the hour of their brigade’s position at a certain point. Then I went to regiment in the same brigade; they declared positively it was one or two hours earlier or later than that given by the other. So it went on, no two regiments or brigades agreeing, and if I hinted that some of them must certainly be mistaken, they would set me down by saying, with severe dignity, ‘We were there, Batchelder, and we ought to know, I guess’; and I made up my mind that it would take a day of at least twenty hours instead of thirteen at Gettysburg to satisfy their accounts. So, when Joshua’s captains got around him after the fight and they began to talk it over, the only way under the heavens that he could ever harmonize their statements was to make the sun stand still and give them all a chance.” Any one who has ever tried to establish the exact position or hour when anything took place in an engagement will confirm Batchelder’s experience; and possibly, if not too orthodox, accept his explanation of Joshua’s feat.<>My Dear Captain Gainesville, Ga., 18th Feby. 1885

    I will ask as a great favor that you will occupy your spare time in putting down your recollections of our campaigns during the late civil struggle for me.

    I expect to write all of my experience of the war, and your retentive and accurate memory will be of great service to me if you can let me have your assistance.

    I shall be glad to get all that you can send me of facts of your own knowledge and of reports, or hearsay points, as all may assist my memory in weaving the actual facts into narration. My mind was so occupied in active operations, that as soon as one thing was accomplished or passed, I dismissed it from my mind, and in that way shall overlook many interesting and minor details if I can get no assistance from you. Give me any incident connected with General Lee and myself, as these will particularly aid me in recalling events. I will say that you cannot give me more than I need if you give the daily and hourly occurrences of every part of four years

    Very Truly Yours,

    James Longstreet

    Send me the matter as you put it down without waiting to complete the whole<<

  2. Margaret D. Blough said, on October 22, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Somehow a sentence got cut out. Before the quotation that begins with “My Dear Captain” about halfway down the post, there should be a new paragraph begin with the sentence to the effect of “Also, on the subject of memory, there is a post-war letter from James Longstreet to his former aide T.J. Goree:”

  3. john banks said, on October 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    this is a great post, Andy…. Enjoyed this one.

  4. corkingiron said, on October 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    “Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t” is a line that will one day appear in my blockbuster novel. You have been warned…..

    Great post, Andy. The essence of a disciplined inquiry.

  5. S. Thomas Summers said, on October 26, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Much enjoyed. The photo also captured me. All the best.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 26, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Kid doesn’t seem thrilled. Grandpa (great-grandpa?) seems to be having a Grand [Army of the Republic] old time, though.

  6. Wilbur said, on October 28, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Very valid points about memory. It’s been said that our memory backs up the files, for want of a better description, every time a memory is accessed- frequently re-writing it as it does. It’s why police are obsessive about taking witness statements soon after an incident, to get accounts tied down before memory alters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: