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Do We Remember The Event Or The Story?


levi-quotePrimo Levi was a Holocaust survivor who spent the remainder of his life (1919-1987) trying to make sense of what happened in the German death camps. He explored his experiences in numerous works, including novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs. If this intrigues you at all, I would start with The Drowned And The Saved. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that his books will break your heart. They are all brilliant, devastating, and can be intellectually dense at times (heavy on theory).

Levi spent a lot of time examining the fallibility of memory. He was concerned that the memory of what transpired in the camps would disappear or become corrupted to the point where the reality would eventually be lost. According to Levi, the survivors themselves might eventually become unreliable narrators. Why would it happen? How could this happen? How could a man who suffered the indescribable atrocities and agonies of Auschwitz worry about losing his memories of it?

We All Remember Things Differently

Some of the most rousing arguments I’ve had with family and friends center on events that we all remember “perfectly.” I nearly came to blows (not really) with my mother once over something that I “knew” she said, that she “knew” she had not. Which of us is right? Are we both wrong? How does this happen? I don’t know the answers to those questions–actually, I know the answer to the first one: she said it. But some of Levi’s theories might illuminate this a bit.

The Telephone Game, Expanded By Decades

Have you ever seen or read something you described as “unforgettable?” I certainly have. How many of those unforgettable instances are still crystal-clear?

chainBack to Levi’s concerns: he claimed that often what we remember is not the event itself, but the last time we told the story about that event. Think about that for a moment. We all know how stories can change over time. Remember the “telephone game?” A group of people sit in a circle or a line. The first person whispers a sentence into the ear of the next person. That person repeats it to the next in line. By the time it gets to the end of the chain, the sentence has usually changed, either because it was misheard or misspoken, or because some joker changed it on purpose.

Picture that chain of people stretching out over the years, or decades. The link grows with each repeating of the sentence (or story).

Stories Change: We Change Them

If you have never embellished a story, you’re a better human than I. People change things all the time based on the circumstances they’re in or who they are speaking with. You can tell the same story to an attractive person you’re desperate to impress, and again to your grandmother, with different motives for telling it. Not to mention different styles, gestures, words.

It’s just as natural to leave information out of stories. Most people want to be liked and need admiration and praise at some level. Altering stories, whether by ramping them up or leaving things out, is one way to win people over.

That Just Sounds Like Lying…

Perhaps. I’ll leave that up to each reader. Consider this: what reasons would Levi have to embellish his stories, if they were even capable of being embellished? What reason would he have for omitting certain details, since he dedicated his life to chronicling the horrors and serving as a living witness…just so nobody would forget? It doesn’t add up. Or, it doesn’t add up until you get deeper into Levi’s books.

We Don’t Necessarily Remember The Events Themselves

Some stories are so good that we tell them at every chance we get. Levi suggests that the constant retelling of a story is what keeps the “memories” fresh. An event isn’t unforgettable because of its traumatic or joyous nature: It’s unforgettable because it gets brought up so often.

So when you tell a story, your memory might not be of What Actually Happened, but of the last time you told the story. Subconsciously, you may not be thinking, “Is that how it happened?” but rather “Is that how this story goes?”

ouchIf you have ever been in severe physical pain, you never forget what caused it. I had the top layer of my eyeball slough off (long story) during a basketball game way back in High School. I’ve never felt pain like that again. I know that for a fact. But saying “that hurt SO bad” doesn’t mean I can feel it again. Pain comes and then pain goes. The story of what caused the pain is unforgettable: the pain itself is impossible to remember because I’m no longer experiencing it. I have too many other aches on my mind right now.

What is the point of all this?

Only that memory and motivations can be slippery and are worth examining. I’ve been proven wrong often enough that I can’t be positive that certain memories of mine are accurate. And I love to tell a good story, so I always try to ask myself why I’m telling it when I start into one. It’s good to know your motivations for anything you do. It’s also not the most comfortable thing in the world. If you commit to examining yourself, you are bound to turn over some rocks you’ll wish you had left alone. But then you can fix them! Either that, or just ignore them:

Either way, you will learn something about yourself. Remember that.

And if you’re looking for more discussion, the question Why do we tell stories? is a good one.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David Cain April 28, 2009, 7:05 am

    This is a great post, Josh. I have seen this happen. I’ve even caused this to happen. Often we tell stories (and embellesh/edit them) in order to be entertaining or interesting, rather than to inform, and the truth often suffers for it.

  • Chris Guillebeau April 28, 2009, 7:20 am

    Just want to say that this is fantastic! Props to David Cain for sharing on Twitter – I will do the same now. I especially like the part about “memory and motivations can be slippery and are worth examining” – so true.

    Keep up the excellent writing.

  • Donetta Harrison April 28, 2009, 7:32 am

    So much of what believe to have some form of permanence does not. Memories are not snapshots in photograph albums to be flipped through at will. Each time we recall a memory we rewrite it and over time we add overtones and hues that reflect our current emotional state.

    Then of course there are the challenges we face when we attempt to make sense of the present by matching current experiences against past memories. Pattern matching. We may have a memory of a facial expression that indicated anger and that memory is activated for ever more when we see the same facial expression, unless we recognise it for what it is.

    We weave oh so painful stories around these flawed memories of past events which lead us to make flawed assumptions about our current situations.

    I just find the human mind fascinating – so strong and yet so fragile.

    I really enjoyed your post. Thank you

  • Josh Hanagarne April 28, 2009, 7:41 am

    Thanks for the kind words, Donna. Your avatar looks very sensible, by the way:)

  • Allan Wallace April 28, 2009, 7:57 am

    I’m sure there are more people like me. Having concocted whoppers as a youth, I found all my stories colored with fabrications.

    I decided that if it was history, if it was worth telling in the first place, than accuracy was very important and it would still be worth telling. Obvious jokes and ramblings may be like novels with a just a germ of truth. True stories should remain true. Perhaps I relate histories less then before, but my accuracy strives to remain as consistent as memory; even if elements vary within different conversations. Each telling of a story can then reinforce memory of the original event.

    I’ll look up Primo Levi’s works, Thank you.

  • Lisa notes... April 28, 2009, 8:45 am

    You make me think. Good observation that our motivation for telling a story will color what pieces we tell, and retell.

    I’m not a good story-teller–I want to cut to the chase too quickly. [That trait probably needs analyzing, too.] An unfortunate side-effect is that I don’t remember things from my past as well as story-tellers do. The “facts only” aren’t as sticky compared to when they’re embedded in a story.

  • Aximilation April 28, 2009, 11:43 am

    Interesting writeup, I like the point about how re-telling stories keeps it fresh. I have some friends I have always made fun of because they will all tell stories about various family members, and over the course of several months you will hear the same story several times from different people. The cool thing is that oftentimes they are very similar, it looks like this re-telling may just be keeping some of the accuracy around.

  • Josh Hanagarne April 28, 2009, 12:11 pm

    That’s an interesting point. And I wonder: if retellings, even inaccurate retellings, keep some of the truth around, is that better than the whole event being lost? I’m not sure what I think about that yet.

  • Shaheen Lakhan May 16, 2009, 12:30 am

    Thanks for submitting this post to our blog carnival. We just published the 45th edition of Brain Blogging and your article was featured!

    Thank you.


  • Luke Grange May 24, 2009, 11:13 pm

    This is all so true! What came to mind while I was reading the Post was also a case in point, I believe. If you think back to your first memories as a child. How clear is this memory in your mind. Was there possibly a photo (at a picnic) taken by a parent or family friend to back the memory up? If so do you really remember the moment (at the picnic) or could it be that the photo which has been in a family album since you were a baby makes you feel you remember it. Have family members told a story at gatherings about that particular picnic which makes you feel you should remember the moment, I mean there was a photo so why not. The truth is very difficult to define in this curcumstance and I can relate to this. Can you?

    • Josh Hanagarne May 25, 2009, 7:00 am

      Absolutely, Luke. I bet that I have little or no real “memory” of 95% of what I see in our photo albums, at least before age 10.

  • Celia Prosser May 25, 2009, 8:43 pm

    Loved the article and reminds me of the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This talks about the amount of information our Central Nervous System is capable of processing. It seems we can manage at most 7 bits of information such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli or nuances of emotion etc at any one time. Csikszentmihalyi concludes it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second. Basically what that means is we selectively delete, distort and generalise information so that we are not overloaded each second of every day. We delete, distort and generalise information based on our own filters, such as our values, memories, and beliefs (to name a few). So have a play – talk to a sibling or friend about an event you both went to as kids – I’ll bet that you both have a different memory of that event!

    There’s lots of information about this when referring to Neurolinguistic Programming which is the way we code and create our lives in our minds. By understanding this we can code and create a really compelling future by giving ourselves more choice and getting rid of limiting beliefs or experiences that we perceive as being negative. (I could go on for hours!!!)

    Thanks again for the article – loved it!

    • Josh Hanagarne May 25, 2009, 8:50 pm

      Wow! Is it nice to be a genius? I bet you like it:) Thanks for the kind words. I’ll look up the book “Flow,” but it may be well over my head. Glad you enjoyed the article. Any other recommendations?

  • Celia Prosser May 25, 2009, 9:01 pm

    Hardly a genius!! Having worked with stress claims in the past I became passionate about helping people get rid of their limiting beliefs so they can live a life they want and deserve. That’s where the neurolinguistic programming comes in. Any work by Robert Dilts, Richard Bandler or John Grinder will explain it more. Enjoy!!

  • Travis July 15, 2009, 1:22 pm

    Interesting thought there, and I agree about the point of remembering a story better than the actual events. Another thing I’d like to point out, especially in stories that are constantly retold, is that anytime they’ve been embellished or “adjusted” in any way, part of the work lies in thinking “Is this the same way i told it last time?” and so you become more infatuated with retelling it the way you did last time as opposed to focusing on accuracy of the events in place.

  • mk akan February 11, 2010, 10:58 am

    i love stories and sure loves telling some.i never knew it works this way

    • Josh Hanagarne February 11, 2010, 12:59 pm

      It might not always work this way, but that’s something we each have to figure out for ourselves. So far, I do think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of how it has worked for me.