11/06/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Memories Are Made of

One of my fondest memories is watching my daughter dancing to 60s rock music at a cousin's wedding. She is at the center of the crowded dance floor, swaying and bopping to the music. Her pin-tucked pink dress matches the bow in her hair. As clear as day, I see her gliding across the floor, twirling, and spinning, smiling from ear to ear.

Years later, I run into the bride and with a laugh she, too, recalls my daughter at her wedding, happily boogieing to the music. She then remarks that she had just celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary. With a quick calculation, I realize that my daughter was only 11 months old at the wedding. The indisputable knowledge of the date tells me that she never could have been standing and dancing as my memory recalls. I know for certain she took her first steps at 13 months. There was no way she could have been dancing and twirling across the floor as I had always remembered. Now my mind's eye sees the memory anew: a toddler, sitting on the floor, rocking to the beat, happily swaying to the music, enjoying her moment in the spotlight. This new memory, now just as vivid as the prior one, has been completely transformed.

Why did my previous memory have her gracefully dancing on two strong legs? Here, we can see how the memory of my little rocker must have been gradually updated to match my now familiar image of her as a dancer. We rescript our memories to keep pace with our current emotional state, or what we know to be true at this moment in time. In this way, the ordinary process of simply living life revises what we know to be real. We can never recapture what we in fact experienced at the time. Memories are both timeless and changeable. All that remains of experience is our memory of an event. Hence, memories are not actually "remembered," but are in essence imagined.

J.K. Rowlings beautifully captures this idea in the very last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We see Harry speaking with Dumbledore, who in the story is already dead. Harry says to Dumbledore, "Tell me one last thing, is this real, or has all this been happening inside my head?" Dumbledore beamed at Harry and said, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" (pg. 723)

Similarly, when patients tell a therapist a recollection of their past, they believe they are telling us about their actual experience, but really they are sharing their memory or story of an event. Many years ago, a patient I'll call Amelia came to see me. One of her powerful and painful memories was of her older sister stealing her coveted locket when she was 7 years old. She told me how she sought her mother's help, but in her memory her mother seemed uninterested and distracted.

Within days of this event her mother heard the news that her ovarian cyst was malignant. Several months into treatment, Amelia found an old photo of her sister proudly wearing the locket and a birthday crown. Suddenly with surprise, she remembered that the locket had been a birthday gift from her mother to her older sister on her 10th birthday. Now she recalled her envy at watching her sister receive such a gift, and she shamefacedly realized she was the one who stole the locket.

Here we can see that memories, or what we believe to be real memories, do change. Amelia's mind sought a version of the truth -- an emotional truth of feeling robbed herself, of her mother, of her mother's health, attention, etc., rather than a factual one. She came to understand the need to protect herself from the view of her self as the perpetrator of a theft, as the envious one. We can see how her retelling and remembering of that memory was inextricably infused with her current-day emotions and life circumstances related to her mother's illness and death. We all perceive things as we imagine them to be, based on our own histories, as seen through our current lens of the world. This is why two people experiencing the very same event will tell the story in completely different ways. They can have two completely different "realities."

Hence, with a patient such as Amelia, we typically need not decide if a memory is based on truth or imagination. It is always the "truth" as seen through the current slant of one's life, yet may look different from afar or from a different perspective. In therapy we can't change the actual experience a patient had, but we can help them change the story they tell them selves about the event or relationship -- create a different end to the story.

For more by Kerry L. Malawista, MSW, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.