Recent research in neuroscience tells us that memories are incredibly mutable. It seems that every time a memory is evoked, when it is restored in the cells and neural networks of our brains — the content of the memory itself — is subtly altered.* Perhaps that is why traumatic events can be eased by the telling of the associated tale, or why the talking cure actually works.
Reciprocally, this also means that memories are not terrifically reliable. In fact, the more a memory is evoked, the less reliable our account of that event will be. This is not because we wish to change the events we recount — though often enough we do wish events from the past could be changed — but simply because that is how our brains work. They are not hard drives. The are a soft, wet, and incredibly delicate fabric of cells, vessels, and synapses that, when they are working well, give us some sense of coherence.
Today is September 11th, 2010 — nine years since our world was made over in ways that we could never have anticipated even one day earlier.
That morning I was dropping off dry cleaning on my way to my office. I know this for an absolute certainty. I have physical evidence to corroborate this memory: the receipt for the dry cleaning is timestamped 9/11/2001 8:46 a.m.
The dry cleaning shop that we liked to use then, as now, is on Thompson Street, directly in the path that Flight 11 is said to have taken down the island of Manhattan toward its target.
The jumbo set crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40, more or less exactly the same time that the clerk at the shop handed me a receipt for my clothing.
What remains a mystery to me is how I did not see or hear the jumbo jet as it roared so close over the tops of the buildings just overhead. How did the clerk at the shop and I not hear the impact and explosion, just fifteen blocks away. The dryers in the shop were running that morning, and they are loud. Yet how did we not hear the plane overhead, just a few hundred feet above us?
When I walked out of the dry cleaner's storefront, I headed north; I was going to buy a coffee at the Porto Rico coffee store. But I realized they might not be open and turned around to head south. Maybe I would get a coffee at Sullivan Street Bakery even though it would mean backtracking a bit on the route to my office.
I noticed a man was standing in the center of Thompson Street looking up in the sky to the south. Then I noticed another man was looking the same way, so I asked what he was looking at.
He said, "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center -- look." I looked up and saw the gash across the north face of the building and the smoke and flames.
"What a horrible accident -- the people . . ." I gasped.
"Accident? That's no accident," he replied.
"But it must be an accident," I said, thinking of the small plane that had once flown into the Empire State Building. "What kind of a plane was it -- a Cessna or something, right?"
"No, it was a passenger jet."
"Oh my god the people."
I used to believe that my memories of that morning were indelible — crystal clear — but neuroscience tells me that I am wrong. Neuroscience tells me that every time I tell this story that I am changing myself, my neural network, and my memories of that morning. In short, neuroscience tells me that every time I retell a story that I am making and remaking myself, and thus a very small part of the world is made over.
Would that we could all tell these stories so often and so well that we would make them over well enough that they can never happen again. But no matter how many times I tell this story — and thus makeover myself and my memories — the facts do not change. The people in the planes and the towers died. The towers fell. The neighborhood, the city, and the world were thrown into chaos. We went to war in two countries and hundreds of thousands more died or were maimed. We are still at war.
We can tell this 9/11 story again and again. We can all tell our own versions of this story and slowly change ourselves and our memories. But only ending the war will stop the killing.
*If you'd like to read more about the neuroscience of memory, check out the work of cognitive scientist Joseph E. LeDoux.)