Did it happen?

How do we know whether something actually happened?

Did it happen?

How do we know if something happened? Easy, you may say. You can ask someone or otherwise try to verify that it happened. You may be able to consult a photograph, a video recording, or a journal entry you wrote. These are not necessarily infallible in their own right, but let’s forget this for now and come back to it later. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say you are confident that something in particular happened, but others doubt it. As a result, you may start to cast in doubt whether it really did happen.

This is not a new idea. If you’ve read 1984, you may be familiar with the idea. (Small spoiler coming). The protagonist, Winston Smith, stumbles upon proof of a discrepancy/lie. Smith stored this in his long-term memory, but as the lie was so widespread and all Smith had to go on was his memory, he, too, started to doubt the existence of what he found.

Another example is Educated, an excellent, moving memoir. (Another spoiler coming). When those around Tara Westover believed something else, and her brother denying any abuse ever happening, Tara also questioned her memory, and suffered in various ways as a result.

By now, you may get the point, but this is deeper and more profound than you may initially think. If there are enough of these recollections that you strongly believed happened that involve others, but those people have entirely different accounts, the strength of your memories (in terms of credibility) may weaken. If you strongly think certain things have happened but others strongly deny it, what if you start to question your ability to remember things accurately? How can you distinguish between reality and a fabricated alternate reality that you may be constructing? In other words, how do you know what’s real and what isn’t?

In a recent Cheltenham Science Festival 2020 at home talk, I learnt about how some mice were subjects in studies that change their memories. This can take the form of removing memories altogether to injecting a false memory. For example, a subjected mouse may start to think that something horrible happened near the wheel in its cage. If that alone isn’t distressing, then to take the anthropocentric view, what if the same could be done to humans? I’ve read about how painful memories could be removed from our brains in Why we sleep. This is used for patients of disorders like a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to help improve the quality of their lives. In other experiments, experimenters make people believe something happened which didn’t. What if we could take this further? What if criminals being investigated could be made to believe that they committed a crime that they hadn’t. It’s like a memory charm (Obliviate for you fellow Harry Potter fans out there). The mere thought of it being done to you (assuming it hadn’t already) may rightly send a shiver down your spine.

How accurate are our memories, anyway? If we think or write about something that has happened long ago, we may change what has happened inadvertently. Is it a true representation of the event or a reflection of the event based on how we feel about it now? If we want to forget something ever happened, could we subconsciously reframe the memory to put us or others in a better light?

I promised I would return to the point about proof, such as that which takes the form of photos, videos, etc. What if they, too, are doctored? In the age of Photoshop, it may not be too hard to imagine photos being redacted or entirely fabricated. Videos may be harder, but still doable. What if your handwriting was replicated to the point where you, too, were fooled? You may now think this is far-fetched (and that I’m being paranoid) and that no-one would go to the expense or effort of doing anything like that to you. That’s not the point – this is just a mere thought experiment. The point here that if we rely heavily on so-called proof, which can be doctored, how do we know what really happened?

It seems to me that memories strengthen by number. The more people that can confirm your memory is accurate and that they too share the memory, the stronger your convinction in it, and perhaps, therefore, the more impactful that memory becomes. The issue here is that we may then rely too heavily on others, or at least question our memories even if we try to muster all of the self-convinction within us.

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash