#3. It's First Come, First Served
Our memory is not unlike a prestigious nightclub: Anyone who wants in has to wait in line. And the bouncer in this particular joint doesn't take bribes -- it's first come, first served to the end. Hanging in the lobby of that club is your brain, and it notices people in the exact order they enter. This may pose some problems; if the 67th person coming in is the love of your life, good luck noticing: Chances are that your memory is too busy rubbing shoulders with whoever came in first. If that person happens to be the love child of Paula Deen and Pax Dickinson -- well, that's just tough.
Still, maybe it's not all lost. Research on commercials has shown that sometimes we can also remember the last thing in our memory conga roughly as well as the first one. Assuming the same applies to all memories, you can always wish that the person of your dreams likes to make a dramatic entrance.
Or is just a habitually, cripplingly, life-destroyingly tardy person.
#2. Your Brain Cheats by Focusing on Details
Remember that time when you stood in a police lineup, only to find that the witness only remembered that the culprit had a huge nose? And as luck would have it, all those other guys had a huge nose too? Sure you do.
Your lawless ass was saved because the brain of the witness was feeling lazy and decided to employ a phenomenon called salience of detail, where it just sort of focused on the most eye-drawing part of the subject and memorized that shit instead of the whole thing.
Here's how it works: Meet Pablo Picasso's Guernica.
The size of that thing is 11 feet 5 inches by 25 feet 5 inches. That's a wall of madness for your memory to deal with, so when it takes a look at the monumental task in front of it, it just wants to skulk into the corner to take a swig from the old hip flask.
So maybe it just cheats. Maybe your head abacus doesn't give a good goddamn about memorizing the entire picture. Maybe it just chooses to focus on one detail and makes the whole memory about that instead. Since the detail is usually the one your eye is most likely drawn to, let's just forget the beast-horse and the flying head and the demon bull and admit that we're obviously talking about the weird boob lady:
Also, let's never discuss the nose of that kid.
There's the image that will burn into your brain. The next day, chances are you won't be able to accurately remember the entire picture, but you'll remember the shit out of the boob lady. Sure, you might dimly remember the entire Guernica, and you'll definitely recognize it if you see it again. But what you truly remember is the boob lady. At least until you forget her over time.
Which you won't.
#1. Your Memory Can Randomly Make Your Life a Lie
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I have a memory that's been haunting me for as long as I can remember. I was a baby, just old enough to crawl, but holy shit I was good at that. I roamed the house like a maniac, chewing on toys, pulling on the dog's tail, and generally wreaking havoc on everything under a foot tall, until I ran into my grandfather, who picked me up and stopped my amok crawl. It's the most vivid memory I have, and by far the longest continuous one. Basically, it's like an infant version of that Prodigy video.
It's also a complete and utter fabrication.
I was around 1 year old, and kids that young don't really form memories yet. My family didn't live in that house until years later. We didn't have a dog until I was 9, and my grandpa would probably have reflexively kicked me out of the window if he had suddenly seen me coming for him at ankle height. He was by no means a cruel man, I just happened to look like this:
The hoodie was handy for hiding the horns.
I know all this, but it doesn't stop me from having 15 minutes of baby view cam in my head -- and it seems far more real than most of my actual memories.
The weird thing is that pretty much everyone I tell this story to has at least one like it. Not necessarily baby antics, just these big, bullshit memories taking up brain space like it ain't no thing, which is precisely what they are. These weird fakes happen to lots of people, for various reasons, not all of which involve mushrooms.
Shockingly, it's not your memory's fault. It's just that imagination keeps sneaking into memory's office to randomly doodle dicks all over its papers.
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Imagination: The worst co-worker.
This is a memory phenomenon called imagination inflation, and it's exactly what you think: It embellishes the stuff we remember, leading to vivid but inaccurate memories. Imagination can randomly pad up and even completely fabricate details of any event, to the point where any individual memory -- no matter how clearly you remember it -- might be complete and utter horseshit, constructed by your brain just because it got its wires tangled yet again.
As powerful as it may seem, at the end of the day the brain is just a few pounds of moist molecules trying to cope with the entire goddamn universe. We're not trying to play GTA V with a VIC-20 here -- we're tackling GTA MCMLXVI with a pound of gazelle testicles for hardware.
So maybe it's best to let the brain take its shortcuts. The poor thing is trying its best.