Different Versions of Reality

By Leslie Sann

I think, therefore, I had a thought.

My sister and I were reminiscing about our childhood pet dog, Brandy. She was sharing about how she found out that Brandy had died. It was the end of summer, and our mom had picked her up from the airport after being away. She had a friend with her in the backseat who was being taken to our house, where her friend’s mom would get her. Lauren (sister) excitedly said to her friend, Wait until you meet our dog! Our mom, hearing her, turned to the backseat and informed her that Brandy had died. Lauren was devastated at the loss and embarrassed that she had found out in front of her friend.

Huh? That’s not how it happened, said I. In my version of reality, I had just returned to college after a visit to NY for Thanksgiving when I received a call informing me Brandy had had a heart attack and died.

No, replied Lauren; he died under anesthetic while having his teeth cleaned. We looked at each other, amazed, as we were convinced our version of reality was the right one.

So what did happen? Both memories are vivid as it was a traumatic moment in our young lives, our precious pet having died. Yet for my sister, he died in the summer at the vet’s office, and for me, after I returned for a fall holiday at home.

Memories are complex and often unreliable. We consider memories to be true, yet they are subject to change. Events are moved from our brain’s temporary memory to permanent storage while we sleep. Memory elements may be distorted, deleted, or changed during this process. This is where what is called “false memories” can begin.

Everyone has false memories, ranging from small, like where you put your glasses, to significant, like how and when your beloved pet died. The human brain doesn’t record events in detailed accuracy. Instead, what is remembered is the gist of the event, which may also be distorted by emotional content.

It is useful to realize that what we recall may differ from what occurred. Memory consists of thought. Just because we think something doesn’t make it true. It makes sense to question how much of what we remember is real and how much might be a misperception. If memories make you miserable, perhaps you could reinterpret the events more beneficially, as there’s no reason to believe what you’re holding onto is true.

Yet we like our stories. I have invested energy in my story about how Brandy died, convinced he died of a broken heart because I had returned to school. My sister uses her stories to show how our mom kept things from her. I’m not dropping my story to buy into hers, nor is she buying into mine. We’ve created an identity around our stories and have grown attached to them.

So, how did Brandy die? We asked our mother, and she has no memory of it at all! Hmmm, perhaps we never actually had a dog.

Yours from Planet Joy,