Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Talking Memories

One of the joys of having been a young grandmother is that I can enjoy adult grandchildren, who were raised with tales of  our forebears in the Old Country, as well as  how my generation and my parents' became assimilated to American culture.  Much of that assimilation necessitated giving up much of our Jewish heritage, including eating only kosher food.

Over dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant, my grandson Ben, suddenly asked, "Which grandfather  was it who brought home a ham and said, 'We're Americans now and Americans eat ham..."  Being of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, Ben spoke loudly and dramatically as he recounted the narrative of how my parents and I learned to eat pork and shellfish.  It was very entertaining. 

However, it didn't happen that way, nor did I or my parents ever say it did.  What I had told Ben and my other grandchildren was that my father came home with a Baked Virginia Ham one afternoon, and, in one fell swoop, unkoshered our house.

After Ben's finished his performance, I quietly said, "But it didn't happen that way."  Ever ready to rebut--another facet of  Ashkenazi Jewish conversation--Ben objected, "But you told me that story."  "No Ben, I didn't.  I was there and all my father said was, 'Here. This is supper." Ben kept insisting on his version, reminding me, as if I needed reminding, that bringing home the ham was the end of our being kosher and all that that entails.  This certainly was a landmark event in our lives. 

Elizabeth Loftus and many other psychologists have long known that we encode events into language, and remember according to the language used, not the event itself.  For instance, Dr. Loftus showed participants a movie of a car hitting another one.  Afterwards, one group was asked, "How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car?"  Another group was asked how fast it was going when it hit.  Another was given a word like collided. (These may not be the actual words she used, but they are like the ones she did.)

The group that heard smashed consistently estimated the speed of the vehicle as being greater than did the other groups.  Moreover, later one, when asked to remember what they saw, the first group claimed that the car was speeding recklessly, whereas the other groups recalled the car as not going so fast, nor being so reckless.  There was a distinct correlation between the words used and the way people remembered the event.

I told Ben that his anecdote was better than the tame story I had told him.  What he remembered, was a likely scenario which incorporated both the drama and the importance of changing from kosher to nonkosher.  In other words,  when Ben heard the story, he realized the drama and the struggle for assimilation it implied.  Therefore, he "remembered" this long, dramatic speech about becoming American, a speech my father would never have given.  How do I know my memory wasn't at fault, and Ben's was?  Well, at the same table were my granddaughter Rebecca, my son Daniel, my son Eric, and my husband Bill.  They all affirmed that I was right.  I had told them all about that event in the family, and they affirmed that all my father had said was "Here.  This is supper."

Why would Ben "remember" this event as being so dramatic, and entailing a long lecture about assimilation?  Because issues like being kosher or not are very  much a big concern for Ben.  Although, in fact, he has only one Jewish grandparent, he is intensely Jewish, and his career is in Jewish education.  So, it's not only words you heard that cause you to form memories in a certain way.  It's what your interests and passions are.

Thanks to language, human memories are malleable.  What you believe affects how you recall something.  How something was described will also affect your memory. What is going on around you and how you judge it, also affects memory. The use of one synonym instead of another can have a great effect.  No matter how vivid the memory, no matter how clearly you think you can see what you claim to have seen, no matter--it may be false.