Kathriona Devereux: Remembering happier times... or were they?

Are our memories reliable? So asks Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: Remembering happier times... or were they?

SWEET MEMORIES FOR SOME: Ireland’s Packie Bonner saves the penalty struck by Romania’s Timofte. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

I WASHED my hands before writing this column. I have, like many, been preoccupied with keeping up to date on the spread of Covid 19, washing my hands so much they are like the desiccated hands of a 90-year-old and repeatedly asking my smallies to stop licking things.

In an attempt to get away from the worrying pandemic news and lower my anxiety levels, I deliberately sat down to watch, of all things, a football documentary. I’m not known for a deep appreciation of the beautiful game but I was confident that RTÉ’s two-part documentary series The Boys in Green would be a welcome respite from the rolling news.

And it was. Skipping back 30 years to the heyday of the Jack Charlton era was an uplifting journey down memory lane: 37% of the viewing audience watched the first episode and gave it a nostalgic thumbs up.

But was it really? Unlike my husband sitting next to me I didn’t get goosebumps watching Packie Bonner save the penalty from Romania’s Daniel Timofte. My vivid memory of the event is waiting on South Main Street at the No.14 bus stop next to Triskel for a bus that would never come. Periodically, an enormous roar lifted the roof off Rearden’s pub nearby and my mom and I would look at each other and say “what is going on” and “where is the bus?” We were the only two people on the streets of Cork.

Little did we know that we were missing one of the greatest moments in Irish history. We only realised afterwards what had been happening when we watched the nightly news!

The whole “Ireland qualifying for the World Cup for the first time” thing went completely over my mother’s head so while everyone was gathering in the pub or around the telly at home creating memories that would last a lifetime we were creating less euphoric lifelong memories — of waiting for the bus.

But are any of those memories reliable or accurate? Our memories are powerful but not perfect. They can be altered and influenced. The human brain consists of about 86 billion neurons. Each neuron forms connections to other neurons, estimated to be around 100 trillion connections. If your brain worked like a digital video recorder, it could store 2.5 petabytes of information, that’s enough to hold three million hours of TV!

But of course, human memories aren’t recorded and stored like pictures on a video camera.

Our brains influence what we perceive and what we remember, making our memories of events and situations malleable.

A couple of years ago I interviewed UCC psychologist Dr. Gillian Murphy who studies memory and is keen for everyone to appreciate how unreliable our memories can be. The developing scientific understanding of memory and how it works is eye-opening - humans are pretty bad at remembering things accurately.

The brain has a big job of interpreting the world all day every day and sometimes it takes shortcuts. Inattentional blindness is an example of when our brain is so engaged in one thing that we miss the obvious. Gillian showed me how unreliable my memory was by showing me CCTV footage of a house being burgled and asking me to pay attention to particular things happening in the scene. She then asked me did I know the burglar? I studied him very carefully before determining, absolutely, that I’d never seen him before in my life. Turns out she had tricked me and he was a long time work colleague in the simple disguise of a baseball cap pretending to rob his own house. But because I was so focussed on looking at the house and what was being robbed, and he was completely out of context, my memory failed to identify him.

The other reason our memories are imperfect is that our memories are not carefully filed away pieces of information like a library book that we access and then return to the shelf when we have “remembered” something.

Our memories are created by a network of neurons firing in a particular way and when we want to remember something this same network has to fire again and again. So our memories are constantly being recreated or rebuilt. And like anything that has to be taken apart and reassembled over and over - mistakes can happen.

When a memory network starts misfiring we can end up accidentally ‘mis-remembering’ something – or creating a false memory. Through no fault of our own – simply because of biology.

These unreliable memories have huge implications for eye witness reports of crime and witness testimony. And simply how we interact with our friends and families. Sometimes we can be absolutely adamant that what we remember is fact but Dr. Gillian Murphy would like if we became “critical consumers of our own minds” and have a little humility about how steadfast our memory is. Maybe sometimes your husband is right!

Back in 1990 I jumped on the football bandwagon for the quarter final match with Italy and I do have a vivid memory of repeatedly shouting the name Schillaci in a dramatic Italian football commentator accent while my mother did the ironing with one eye on the match!

So, on this very unusual St Patrick’s Day, why not catch up on The Boys in Green documentary on the RTÉ Player and revisit your hazy memories of another momentous time in our nation’s history. It will remind you that we will have happier times again.

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