The Memory of Dreams

Memory, scientific research tells us, is not necessarily fact. Researchers have shown how it is possible to implant false memories in subjects. For this reason, eyewitness testimony is not always so reliable. The “tall man with dark hair” may have, in fact, been a 5’6″ blondie.

Yet, if I’m being presumptuous, I’d wager that most of us have trouble seeing how our memories could fail us. They are like video cameras, recording the truth and keeping it there, at least for a while. Sure, the picture gets fuzzy over time, and some events get erased over, but it’s not like our minds would create scenes and details that were never there.

Except, our minds do. And if you need a reminder of this, look to dreams.

I recently had a dream in which someone asked me when I had lived in Ireland. “1998,” I told her. (It was 2002.) She asked where I had lived, and I provided a description of a location that does not exist in a town that does not exist. (I lived on the outskirts of Galway.) Every step of the way, I believed with absolute certainty that what I was saying was correct. Only upon waking did I realize that the dream details were incorrect.

I think a lot of people have had that experience but take comfort that when they awake their minds are able to differentiate between true and false memories, as I did when I awoke. Yet that’s a false sense of security. After all, the central player in the creation of both types of memory is the brain. It’s hard to say, “I trust the brain when I’m awake but not when I’m asleep.” Certainly, some of the same mechanisms are at play during both times.

I’m not asking you to rethink the nature of reality à la Kant or even à la Total Recall. But I would suggest that our memories, which form the basis for our decisions and judgments, are fallible. Even yours. That was what your crazy dream was about.