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Thanks for the Memories

Libi Astaire

Ever since Rosh Chodesh Elul, we’ve been focusing on memories, recalling what we did over the past year. This culminates with Rosh Hashanah — the Day of Remembrance — in which Zichronos, the second major part of Mussaf, remind us that Hashem never forgets anything. But what about us? Can you really be sure you didn’t promise to bring dessert for the family get-together last Chanukah, when your sister is still insisting you were supposed to bring the doughnuts? How reliable are our memories?

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A few weeks ago, my older sister and I were reminiscing on the phone. It was the date of my father’s birthday — a day that’s become bittersweet since he was niftar a few years ago. “I remember that year we went out for dinner and met my best friend’s family at the restaurant,” said my sister. “Her father was also having a birthday, so we celebrated the two birthdays together.” “That must have been fun,” I replied. “I’m sorry I missed it.” Pause. “You were there.” “No, I wasn’t.” “Yes, you were. I remember.” I could have insisted my sister was wrong; perhaps that was the year I went away to summer camp. But since the event took place a few decades ago, could I really be so sure I was right? As it turns out, I was at least right about one thing: not to argue the point. Unlike HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Whose memory is perfect, our memories of past events are more subject to change — and error — than we might think.   Open. Change. Save. Repeat. In the past, scientists and philosophers thought memories were static. Every time a person revisited an event in his life, the memory was the same. It was like a photograph stored in a sort of filing cabinet in the brain, where it remained in a pristine state. During the past decade, researchers have discovered that this theory couldn’t have been more wrong. The “static snapshot” is actually a collection of brain cells, which undergo chemical changes and create new connections whenever they engage other brain cells. Today’s researchers therefore compare a memory to a computer file that gets changed and resaved each time it gets opened.

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