This Pam-toon was inspired by two curiosities. I wondered how coherent it would be for an amnesiac to recount her “lived experience” of her forty years as a member of a marginalised group. And I wondered, given the following vignette, about the reliability of a non-amnesiac’s report of her own “lived experience.”
A friend’s daughter is a child psychiatrist. She was fascinated that in consulting with a family of four, each told completely different yet plausible stories about the same events. This family’s behaviour is not an anomaly. Rather they unwittingly demonstrated the ‘Rashomon Effect,’ one of several similar memory phenomena well-known to psychology, neuroscience, and law. What follows is a cursory attempt to allay my curiosity and arouse yours.
An amnesiac will need to rely on people who have known her over the years to help her reconstruct her past. And while these witnesses will converge on a number of details, they’ll most certainly diverge on others. And they certainly can’t fill in all the blanks. What’s more, although concrete items such as photos, report cards, and other records may help an amnesiac map out a chronological storyline to her life, she can only attempt to imagine what it might be like for the lost her to experience these relationships and events. She might even be skeptical that they have any connection whatsoever to herself. In fact, as Giuliana Mazzoni says, since “memories shape a person’s identity [, people] with profound forms of amnesia typically also lose their identity.” But are we any better off? Probably not. As Manzzoni says,”It turns out that identity is often not a truthful representation of who we are anyway – even if we have an intact memory.”
According to Robert Nash, “Our memories are only ever as reliable as the most recent story we told ourselves.” And these stories tend to be heavily edited. “We’re often guilty of changing the facts and adding false details to our memories without even realising.” These subconscious *tweaks* are interesting given that, as Nash says, “we also use [our memory] for crucial things like creating a sense of personal identity.” 
But our memories aren’t something we draw solely from within. Nor do we tell our stories in isolation. We, too, rely on witnesses to help us reconstruct the past, using their less-than-reliable memories. We, too, rely on concrete items such as photos, report cards, and other records like passports, to map out our chronological storylines. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves if we are only imagining what it’s like to experience these relationships and events? Rarely if ever.
Nash reports,”[M]y research with other colleagues shows that people are generally pretty unwilling to invest time and effort in checking the accuracy of their memories.” I suppose the question here is to what end? If I want to find my childhood home now buried in a sprawling suburb, I’ll employ my memory in detective work. If it turns out I lived in another part of town, it might pull a thread in my identity. And while some threads can easily be picked up or replaced, others can unravel an entire tapestry. Hence the identity crisis. This crisis can occur not only for individuals, but for entire communities, such as the Pretendian phenomenon.
‘Pretendian’ refers to someone who’s claim to Indigenous ancestry is considered by some to be dubious or false. Some worry that Pretendians appropriate and make a mockery of Indigenous cultures. Others that Pretendians are exploiting Indigenous identities for material gain. Hence the accuracy of our memories might be of greater interest to others than to ourselves. But so can the inaccuracy.
If I want to be accepted into an Indigenous community, I hope the records validate the family lore that my great grandmother was Cree. Facing the train to Auschwitz, I hope that there are no records to validate the family lore that Great Gramma was a Jew. And I will by no means reveal this possibility to my interrogators. In both of these cases, it’s probably to my advantage to evade an investigation. Yet at another time, it’s probably to my advantage to conceal hints at my Indigenous ancestry, such as to avoid forced registration. And to my advantage to emphasise Jewish ancestry when applying for the Law of the Return in Israel.
And so it seems both memory recall and its suppression is affected not only by the material conditions that obtain at the time, but also by one’s real or imagined inclusion-in and exclusion-from social groups. Hence ‘remembering’ appears to play a role in instrumental reasoning, i.e. reasoning in a manner to achieve one’s desires or goals, be those memories true or not. This apparent role is strengthened by Mazzoni’s observation that, “It is becoming increasingly clear that, at any given moment, we unawarely tend to choose and pick what to remember.” (I blogged about this cherry-picking a few years ago.)
But there’s no fault or defect in our propensity to cherry-pick memories, nor in the subconscious edits we make to them, nor even in the instances we get them wrong. As Mazzoni says,”Picking and choosing memories is actually the norm, guided by self-enhancing biases that lead us to rewrite our past so it resembles what we feel and believe now.” But being aware of this propensity of human cognition is cause for some humility and caution. Not only in believing or disbelieving people’s memories, but also in too quickly ascribing people malintent or incompetence when their recollections appear to be wrong.
With all the worry about memories, is it possible to be certain which are true or false? A clear video tape of a man robbing a convenience store is the kind of hard evidence that corroborates the night clerk’s identification of the perpetrator. Although new editing technology certainly undermines the reliability of video now as well. But what kind of evidence confirms or disconfirms lived experience? Well, that depends on what is meant by lived experience.
‘Lived experience’ is used in advocacy, academia, and in some certain circles in popular culture. Most people probably don’t have a handle on what the term means, but it roughly stands in for I know something you don’t know, and don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong! But, as Promise Frank Ejiofor explains, the “concept of lived experience derives from the early twentieth-century phenomenological movement…[which] emphasised interior consciousness of oneself and the world around one: reflection on everyday experiences was considered the true source of knowledge.”
Ejiofor points out that sociologists eventually adopted the the concept of lived experience and “came to see the lived experiences of their research participants as scientific―objective―knowledge, which could be tailored to addressing practical social conundrums including racial discrimination, gender inequality, urban segregation, crime and deviance.” Ejiofor thinks we ought to take into account people’s reports of their lived experience in matters of policy. But he warns,”[We] are likely to make gross moral errors when we consider lived experience as all there is to knowledge, as unique to specific groups and as something that cannot be understood, critiqued or assessed by people from outside those groups.”
My worry in this post has been, as indexed to lived experience, the unreliability and malleability of memory. Cf Ejiofor, lived experience requires that one reflect on, i.e. recollect or remember, her everyday experiences. Whatever we might perceive our lived experience to be, it’s cherry-picked from memory “to fit the current idea that we have of ourselves.” And that idea is shaped by the groups we belong to, or think we belong to, and the material conditions in which we’re embedded. Focussing on one’s lived experience is a myopic, hence impoverished, world view. And as likely as not, dead wrong.
*For further reading see citations [7,8,9].
Costandi, Mo. “Reconstructing the Past, Simulating the Future,” Neuroscience Writer, WordPress Blog, January 09, 2007, https://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/01/09/reconstructive-memory-confabulating-the-past-simulating-the-future/ , accessed March 31, 2023.
Mazzoni, Giuliana. “The real you is a myth — we constantly create false memories to achieve the identity we want,” The Conversation, September 19, 2018, https://theconversation.com/the-real-you-is-a-myth-we-constantly-create-false-memories-to-achieve-the-identity-we-want-103253, accessed March 29, 2023.
Nash, Robert. “Are Memories reliable? Expert explains how they change more than we realise,” The Conversation, December 17, 2018, https://theconversation.com/are-memories-reliable-expert-explains-how-they-change-more-than-we-realise-106461, accessed March 29, 2023.
Lewis, Haley. “What are the ‘pretendians’ and how are they causing ‘severe harm’ to Indigenous communities?,” Global News, March 9, 2023, https://globalnews.ca/news/9450313/pretendians-canada-indigenous-ancestry/, accessed April 1, 2023.
Lindsay, Pamela. “New, old, permanence, and change. A montage of thoughts and quotes. (Repost, Feb 23, 2020), January 12, 2021, https://pam-mentations.com/2021/01/12/the-old-and-the-new-are-not-opposed-heraclitus-everything-is-in-motion-and-parmenides-nothing-is-in-motion-in-tension-a-montage/
When what we’ve got “now” is unbearable, e.g. boring, painful, disappointing, it’s understandable that we look for an escape route. If one isn’t available, we can always imagine a past, or a future, to provide some palliation. Such is the value of reminiscing. Even if memory serves us wrong, as some relish to point out, it oftentimes serves us well for this purpose. Nostalgic reminiscing isn’t usually entirely wrong, it’s just cherry-picking. But so what? We all cherry-pick. The notions of good and bad are lumped in a pile with notions of time, and place, and people — self included, and we sort through these piles to find the things we want to find. Or bury the things we don’t (which, embarrassingly, sometimes take root and sprout). While this cherry-picking is often a self-soothing activity, it’s not necessarily self-serving. Some of our greatest joys come from filling each others’ baskets with the sweet fruits we’ve carefully selected. As do some of our greatest sorrows. Whatever the case, and whatever the reason — justification, palliation, information, solidarity — we sort these piles, picking them apart and covering them over, incessantly.
Frank Ejiofor, Promise. “The Limits of Lived Experience,” Aero Magazine, 04/02/2021, https://areomagazine.com/2021/02/04/the-limits-of-lived-experience/, accessed April 1, 2023.
O’Conner, Patricia T. and Stewart Kellerman.“The Life of a Lived Experience,” Grammarphobia, Blog, December 10, 2021, https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2021/12/lived-experience.html, accessed April 1, 2023.
Karson, Michael. “‘The Problem with Claims of Lived Experience,'” Psychology Today, July 20, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/feeling-our-way/202107/the-problem-claims-lived-experience, accessed April 1, 2023.
Hsiao, Timothy. “The Lived Experience Fallacy,” Minding the Campus, December 13, 2021, https://www.mindingthecampus.org/2021/12/13/the-lived-experience-fallacy/ , accessed April 1, 2023.
Addendum to Further Reading April 2, 2023:
Lindsay, James. “‘Lived Experience, Explained,” New Discourses, October 6, 2022, https://newdiscourses.com/2022/10/lived-experience-explained/, accessed April 2, 2023.
“Josh Zepps & John McWhorter on Exaggerated ‘Lived Experiences’,” Posted by Christian B on You Tube, July 27, 2021, accessed April 2, 2023.
Categories: Pam-Toons, Philosophy, Political Rhetoric, Social and Political Commentary
I don’t have to look any further than my husband and three children to appreciate how ‘some what same but slightly different’ our stories are for the events we jointly experienced!
Lol! And it’s the source of a lot of bickering between myself and my dear hubby alone. Good thing we’ve both a sense of humour!
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