When I was a little girl, about ten years old my aunt took me on a camping trip. Now as I remember the story, we were deep in the woods and we also went white water rafting in a deep river with heavy rapids. When I visualize the experience I can see us in a canoe going down the white water rapids and I can feel the terror of feeling helpless as we navigated the rapids and I held on for dear life. I also remember being at the campsite and seeing a sweet little raccoon in the tree. I remember thinking how cute it was and how much it looked like my stuffed animal I had back at home that I slept with. I can still visualize it staring at the chicken bone while I ate. I thought to myself, it must be hungry, so I leaned over and reached up to hand it my chicken bone. It reached down from the branch it was stooped on and took the bone right out of my hand. A few minutes later the adults started screaming bloody murder when they realized what I had done.
Feeding a wild animal was dangerous they said. It was also dangerous because now it knew to look for food from us. As a young girl, I was confused and ashamed. As an adult when I tell this story, my aunt who insists that we never went white water rafting corrects me. It was a shallow river and all we did was canoe gently down river with some small waves. We camped on a public campsite, not deep in the woods as I remembered and the friendly raccoon was a menace and I almost killed myself. How could I have gotten the story so wrong? I have been telling myself that story for years and my mind had agreed with its images and perception.
The image and perception I have been linking my memory with were completely false in reality, but to a ten-year-old girl, those big waves were rapids and the dangerous raccoon was a friendly childhood pet. My brain was activating the images and representation that I had envisioned as a small child in my perception and weaved a story using the modal model of memory, it passed through the senses of a young mind, established itself in my short-term memory and as I told the story over and over again it ended up in long-term memory believing it was fact by recalling the images that I had remembered in my recall. Those recall memories from my knowledge of white water rafting and the innocence of a child befriending a wild animal became the factors that I based my story around.
The scripts and schemas I had on camping from movies and TV shows only fueled the fire for my very made up memory. This seems to be a common theme for people. We fill in the blanks when faced with situations that are hard to recall and the script and schemas of our past knowledge help us map our experiences out, sometimes to our detriment of inaccurate memory recall encoding false memories as well as real memories into our data. In a paper by Endel Tulving and Donald M. Thomson titled “Encoding Specificity and Retrieval processes in Episodic Memory” they go on to explain that “Retrieval operations complete the act of remembering that begins with encoding of information about an event into the memory store. Thus, remembering is regarded as a joint product of information stored in the past and information present in the immediate cognitive environment of the rememberer.”
I do not recall what my exact scripts and schemas were at the time, but I am sure that adding the imagination of a child along with the idea of what camping and canoeing was at the time for me led to my fantastic story of my very first camping trip. Memory reconstruction is considered an active process, which is constructive in nature and even after 20 years since the event, the only real part of the story was that I went on a camping trip with my aunt and it was a fun and scary time. This leaves me wondering how much of my childhood memories are even real or just good stories I constructed out of my vast imagination and stored up information.
Tulving,Endel. Thomson,Donald M. “Encoding Specificity and Retrieval processes in Episodic Memory” 1973. Psychological review