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False Memories

I had a dream the night before I was supposed to purchase a ticket to Australia.  I was floating on a log raft through Oceania.  The water looked like the ocean in pictures of Fiji — crystal clear and somewhat shallow.  I would have been waist deep if I climbed off the slow-moving raft.

Some of the islands had people standing on the shore, waving at me, and others were uninhabited.  I observed it all from my little, wooden raft, gently floating past places I had wanted to see for a long time.  Australia was just a little curve of land, New Zealand a quick swim away.

It has been 23 years, and I still remember this dream.

I woke up feeling like I had just been on the best trip of my life, and that the reality of Australia could never match the Australia that appeared in my dream.  Which is why, after I trudged through the slush outside to the travel agency, I heard myself ordering a ticket to Norway.  What was the point in going to real Australia when dream Australia was so much better?


I’m back in touch with the friend I was going to visit in Australia, and we just spoke about that fateful ticket purchase.  I still haven’t made it to Australia.

I don’t have regrets — Norway was great — but the story is still sort of funny when I admit it aloud.  I gave up a trip to a place I had wanted to go just because I didn’t think it could match the dream version.  It probably can’t — that dream still makes me happy — and my fake Australia did not contain spiders, snakes, or anything that would freak me out during waking hours.

The Atlantic recently had an article about false memories; things we believe with all our heart to be true, but they never happened (or they didn’t happen like that).  We insist that we know for certain the order of events or who was there or what we wore.  It feels so real, and yet scientists can prove that some of our strongest memories still turn out to be false.  They have even been able to easily plant false memories or manipulate memories with just a few words.

Harrington, now a professor of literary journalism the University of Illinois, once said, “Truth is a documentary, physical reality, as well as the meaning we make of that reality, the perceptions we have of it.”

A true story is always filtered through the teller’s take on it.

I guess the article struck me, especially because I read it while I was thinking about the dream.  If I wouldn’t accurately recall the experience regardless, what was the difference between the dream trip and a real trip once we got beyond the logistics of travel?  After the trip was over, my brain would fictionalize my memories of Australia.  Was it worth messing with the perfect Australia in my dream if both dream and real Australia were going to end up as fiction?

There is clearly a lot of worth in travel (beyond getting to spend time with my friend), and I’m being tongue-in-cheek about our memories becoming fictionalized, but the article made me feel a little less embarrassed that I didn’t want to give up the warm, happy memory of my dream for a reality that could never match how I felt winding around the islands.

Does it bother you to think that some of your favourite memories may not be real?  Or are you so happy with the memory that it’s okay if it didn’t exactly happen as you imagine (as long as you never find out otherwise)?


1 a { 01.18.17 at 7:47 am }

The only things I remember well are bits of trivia – interesting facts. I don’t have clear memories of anything until someone else brings up a past event – then I usually say “I don’t have any memory of that. Guess I’ll take your word for it.”. I sometimes think it’s because my brain is too wired for logic that I don’t want to keep hold of perceptions…Only facts.

2 Justine { 01.18.17 at 3:49 pm }

I feel like too many of my memories have been completely obliterated, so I’d probably be happy with some fictional ones. That said, it’s sort of scary to think about how that works …

And even more bizarrely: my mother is currently in Australia.

3 Persnickety { 01.18.17 at 7:34 pm }

Oh dear, I should never have mentioned snakes and spiders… if it helps, I took a picture of the snake because I generally don’t see them.

I know that different people can remember the same circumstances very differently, but I don’t know if that is false as much as interpretation. I find the dream fake memories to be jarring because sometimes I do think that they were real and go to do something I can’t.

4 Working mom of 2 { 01.18.17 at 11:54 pm }

Yeah, I think no it’s more that people think interpret thingsdifferently or don’t have all the facts, not that there “false” memories unless of course you’re talking about someone planting a false memory just different than someone just randomly have a memory that supposedly is false.

As to dreams, I’ve had a few since my father died where he was still alive – – some of which I knew in my dream that he was dead yet there he was having come back to life. I’ve also had dreams like that about late cats of mine – – where in my dream I know this cat has died but some kind of miracle has occurred and there’s my cat alive again. Those are hard to wake up from. You want it so badly to be true.

5 torthúil { 01.19.17 at 5:06 pm }

Our minds edit and create things like crazy. It’s pretty unnerving when you think about it. One thing I like about the fact I’ve kept a journa/blog for years is that I can go back and read about how I perceived an event in the past….which is often very different from how I remember it now. It’s a lifelong project to understand the power of our minds and how to use those powers effectively.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.19.17 at 11:47 pm }

That sounds like a lovely dream. And a trip I could afford.

When the alarm went off this morning, I was touring Scotland. I didn’t want to wake up because dang it, I wanted to see Scotland!

To answer your question, I think I’m happy with my happy memories whether they’re true or not.

It’s also interesting to think about the converse. I was watching a crime show the other day. A woman had no memory that she’d been assaulted until the police showed her evidence. It was awful to watch the truth dawn on her.

Did you watch WestWorld? So much about how memories is one of the things that make us sentient, human.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.19.17 at 11:49 pm }

Hmmm….I left a comment but I don’t see it. I wonder if it’s caught in a filter somewhere.

8 Persnickety { 01.20.17 at 1:31 am }

I swear that I wrote a comment for this! Really truly. So there is a false memory? So weird
And Australia is not all snakes and spiders- we have coffee as well!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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