Sarah Griffiths has a good piece over on Medium: "Your Childhood Memories Are Probably Fake".
Fictional memories seem just as real as those we have evidence of and therefore know to be true. Brain scans have shown that the neural activity for false memories in adults looks incredibly similar to the activity for a real memory and involves the same regions of the brain, including the hippocampus. This means it could be questionable whether we have any “real memories” that can be relied upon at all, because to some degree all our memories are reconstructions.
I used to obsess about this stuff when I taught classes on critical thinking. Well, I still obsess, I just don't teach classes on it, so I don't have the opportunity to force it down my students' throats. One of my favorite anecdotes about the hazy nature of memory is about July 30, 1959. On that date, future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey made his major-league debut, going 4-for-4 with 2 triples against another future Hall of Famer, Robin Roberts. We know this happened because baseball has detailed records.
I remember this game, not because I was in attendance, but because it was a big deal. The Giants only arrived in San Francisco in 1958, and it was normal to hear the games on portable radios wherever you went. I had just turned six years old, so this is one of my first memories, and what I remember (besides McCovey which can be looked up and verified) is where I was at the time, with my family. And what makes that interesting is if you ask my brother, who was six years older than me, or my cousin, who was seven years older than me, they will tell you they also remember that day, and remember hearing it on the radio, only they were at a different place than I remember ... with my family. Someone's memory is wrong.
Baseball is a useful way to check people's memory. Often, Giants announcer and former pitcher Mike Krukow will tell a story about some game he pitched, and I'll check it out to see if he has his facts right (he often does pretty well). I can tell you the date of the first time I took my son to a baseball game. If I was relying solely on memory, I'd tell you it was 1978, and he was three years old. But I also remember Giants catcher John Tamargo hitting a triple in that game. It was an important hit, bringing home the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, sending the game into extra innings, where the Giants eventually lost. But I can tell you the exact date, because John Tamargo only hit one triple in his entire major-league career. So all I have to do is find that date, and voila! (It was September 2.)
Here's one I was reminded of the other day when I was at the park and saw a famous (to Giants fans) photo:
The man sliding across home plate is David Bell. The Giants players are celebrating because when Bell scored in the bottom of the ninth inning, it gave the Giants the win that sent them to the 2002 World Series, their first trip to the Series in 13 years. Anytime I want, I can close my eyes and remember Bell's slide. It looks just like it does in this picture.
Except ... in those days, I had season tickets, so I was at the game in question. My seats were in the upper deck, almost directly behind home plate. Here is the view from those seats:
You see the problem here. When I watched David Bell slide across home plate that evening, from my view he was sliding diagonally along the base path from left to right. The famous photo, on the other hand, was taken from the right side of the field (and lower/closer, for what it's worth). From my seats, #35 (Rich Aurilia) was jumping in our general direction. In short, Bell's slide looked to me nothing like the way it looks in the photo.
But, as I said, nowadays, 16 years later and counting, when I close my eyes and remember the slide, it looks like the photo. The photo has become my memory, overriding the event as I actually experienced it.
Just to complete everything, here's how it looked on national TV: