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Oliver Sacks on Why Memories Are Not to Be Trusted

Neurologist and bestselling author Oliver Sacks takes on the fallibility of memory in a sweeping essay in the Feb. 21, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books. Moving from his own attempts to recall the past to the creation of false memories to the difference between plagiarism, autoplagiarism, and cryptomnesia—when a forgotten memory reappears as an original thought—Sacks concludes:

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. (The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as “creating,” and remembering as “recreating” or “recategorizing.”) Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks cites the work CLBB Faculty Member Daniel L. Schacter, as well as that of Elizabeth F. Loftus,  coauthor with Schacter of a recent Nature Neuroscience commentary, “Memory and Law: What Can Cognitive Neuroscience Contribute?

Read the entire essay at