Memory professor discovers paradox

Memories of the future

Your memories are largely determined by events in the future. How does that work? Memory professor Douwe Draaisma wrote a book about it.
By Christien Boomsma / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

RUG professor and writer Douwe Draaisma’s new book –  Als mijn geheugen me niet bedriegt (If my memory does not deceive me) – deals with experiences so profound that they can change your past.

The motto for the new book is a quote by Marten Toonder: ‘[…] because something that happened in our youth is often the result of an incident in our later years.’

The title, according to memory professor Draaisma, refers to events that shine new light on existing memories.
An example of that would be discovering that your father had a mental disorder after you had a terrible, abusive childhood.

Memories can become distorted quickly and different people can have different memories of the same event.
It is often impossible to find out which memory is ‘correct’. That is called the Rashomon effect.

Reading time: 9 minutes (1,437 words)

Douwe Draaisma says that Diederik Stapel is actually quite unlucky: the scientific fraud he committed is not going away. Most offences lapse, and the people involved forget about it. But what Stapel did was so unusual and so unprecedented that the people involved keep talking about it.

They do not forget. That makes the five years since his fraud was discovered seem like just yesterday.

The situation is somewhat comparable to the murder of Pim Fortuyn. That was something so shocking that years later, people still remember exactly where they were at the time the flamboyant politician was assassinated. In technical terms, this is called a ‘flashbulb memory’: a recollection that sharply stands out in your memory, like a photograph. You not only know where you were, and with whom, but you also remember what the other people you were with were wearing and what kind of glasses they had on. You can still see the circles under their eyes and the stain on their t-shirt.

But it is also an event that sheds a different light on everything that happens afterwards. Groningen PhD candidates suddenly remember how Stapel used to wave them away when he went to another school to conduct research surveys. They remember his arrogance or how manipulative he was – things they may never have recalled if the fraud had not been discovered. If that had not happened, then they would have called him brilliant rather than arrogant, or helpful rather than manipulative. Maybe they never would have remembered the time they spent with one of the biggest scientific frauds in history.

These kinds of events spurred Draaisma – memory professor and, in his spare time, best-selling author – to write his new book Als mijn geheugen me niet bedriegt, which he will be presenting in the aula in the Academy building on 21 September. What happens when you find out your father was not your real father? That your brother committed murder? That your lover has been cheating on you for years? These are experiences that are so profound that they not only change our future, but also our past, like a pillow that takes on a different shape after being punched.

A nose for subjects

The book will undoubtedly fly off the shelves. After all, Draaisma has faithful readers. ‘During my last book presentation in the Aletta Jacobs room, I saw people that were there the very first time’, he says, visibly pleased.

Who are these people? Basking in the morning sun at his favourite café, the Prinsenhof at the Martini churchyard – ‘the prettiest spot in all of Groningen’ – he calmly ticks off the characteristics of his audience. More female than male, more likely to be older than 60 than younger, more likely to prefer reading something on paper than from an e-reader and would rather write a letter than an email, although the difference between the last two groups has been getting smaller in recent years. And they are very dedicated.

Memories are not necessarily untrustworthy, but they are changeable

Even more important is the fact that Draaisma has a nose for the kind of subjects that appeal to this audience. But, he emphasises: ‘Hand to God, I don’t do it on purpose. I just write about what fascinates me.’ And then he starts researching: why is it that life speeds up as we get older? Why is it that old people remember their childhood so well, of all things? Why is that we forget dreams so quickly after waking up? And now: how is it possible that our memories can change so much?
He wants to know for himself. It just so happens that some 10,000 other people want to know, too.

Strange quote

‘Memories are not necessarily untrustworthy, but they are changeable’, Draaisma says after taking a sip of his latte macchiato. ‘They are influenced by what happened later.’

A strange quote by Marten Toonder is used as the motto for the book. ‘[…] because something that happened in our youth is often the result of incident in our later years.’ Weird, right?

‘Jungian nonsense’, they called it

‘When I read it the first time, in a review in the Volkskrant, people were laughing it off. ‘Toonder’s Jungian nonsense’, they called it’, says Draaisma. ‘But whenever I used it during a lecture for psychotherapists, there were always people who’d jump up and take a picture of the slide. Experiences gaining meaning years later is something they see daily.’

For Toonder, could the text have been about his relationship with his sons? After his death, one son turned out to be a completely different person than his father had thought. And after years of close collaboration, the other one started feuding with him. While Toonder thought he had been helping his son, the latter had seen his actions as forceful and overbearing. Two truths. One event. The future had distorted the past.

And that happens all the time, Draaisma realised. Take abuse, for example: suddenly a loving embrace takes on a different meaning. Or you have the rude awakening of finally seeing why your father always treated you differently from your brothers and sisters upon finding out that he was not your biological father. Or you realise – after a terrible, abusive childhood – that your father had a mental disorder.

Centre of our existence

Memories, says Draaisma, are not the photographs people often compare them to. They are more like records in an archive. Numbers or phrases that initially seem objective are all dependent on knowledge we gained later. And once we see these things in this new light, it is almost impossible to go back to how we saw them before.

Our memory is at the centre of our existence, at the centre of what we are. It is superior to everything else.

Draaisma continues to be fascinated by the twists and idiosyncrasies of memory. He has tried once or twice to write about different subjects – De Dromenwever (The Dreamweaver) was a brave attempt at something different – but even then, he could not resist writing about memory, and how weird it is that the memory of a dream becomes intangible and disappears so quickly.

‘It’s always fascinated me’, says Draaisma. ‘Maybe that’s why I enjoyed reading Rudy Kousbroek so much in high school. Our memory is at the centre of our existence, at the centre of what we are. It is superior to everything else. If we lose our memory, we lose our personality, our intelligence, our perception. It is the centre of everything.’

Rashomon effect

And yet it can change frighteningly fast. ‘I’ll be present at a phone conversation sometimes, and when my table companion later tells me what they were talking about – ‘So I say to him…’ – then that can be a completely different conversation than the one I just witnessed.’

That is how fast memories are formed and transformed. Because the person telling them is deeply convinced of their ‘truth’. Just like Draaisma himself. But who is right? That is impossible to say.

It is called the Rashomon effect – after the film where one murder is explained three different ways, while the real truth is lost. ‘Toonder knew about it as well’, says Draaisma. ‘And yet he was unable to apply this knowledge to his own life.’

It was a teaching moment for Draaisma. Resolve conflicts before it is too late. And: try not to think that you are the only one who is right. After all, the other person is just as convinced, and it is usually impossible to determine who truly is right, or if there ever was a single truth at all.

That is what it is all about for Draaisma: giving a voice to the wrinkles and secrets of our brain and making them recognisable and manageable. And, in all honesty, that is perhaps moreso who he is rather than the scientist or the psychological historian. ‘Scientific articles can be written by other people’, he says. ‘But my books are the standard by which I measure my life. I can pour all my skills into them.’

The UK is giving away five autographed copies of Als mijn geheugen me niet bedriegt (in Dutch). Interested? Check our contest on Facebook.

nederland, groningen, 15-09-2016foto reyer boxemDouwe Draaisma, gedrags en maatschappijwetenschappen

Douwe Draaisma

Douwe Draaisma is a professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen. Additionally, he has written a large number of popular science books, including Waarom het leven sneller gaat als je ouder wordt (Why life speeds up as you get older, 2001) which won many awards and was translated into 25 languages, De Heimweefabriek (The Nostalgia Factory, 2008), in which he describes the ageing memory, and De Dromenwever (The Dreamweaver, 2013), about the mysteries of dreaming.

A German translation of Als mijn geheugen mij niet bedriegt is being published simultaneously with the Dutch version (as Halbe Wahrheiten). Draaisma will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in honour of the occasion.

During the Dutch presentation of his book in the aula at the Academy building on 21 September, Draaisma will be interviewed by Coen Verbraak.


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