My Camping Episodic Memory

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 Memory1973. Psychological review

6 thoughts on “My Camping Episodic Memory

  1. lsl5015

    This was such a funny post, and a great explanation of episodic memory. I think it’s amazing how, even as adults, we create our own memories — often to justify some of the (bad) decisions we make. Dan Ariely, a Duke University economist, has been at the forefront of the relatively new social science of Behavioral Economics, which in part aims to explain why people often make bad decisions. Tangentially, Ariely often writes about our amazing ability to unknowingly recreate our memories to better reflect what we want to see in ourselves.

    From his blog:

    ” We are very good at explaining our behavior (sometimes shocking and irrational), and to do so we create neatly packaged stories – stories that may be amusing or provocative, but often have little to do with the real causes of our behaviors. Our actions are often guided by the inner primitive parts of our brain – parts that we can’t consciously access — and because of that we don’t always know why we behave in the ways we do; still, we can compensate for this lack of information by writing our own versions.”

    If you’ve never read Dan Ariely’s work, I highly recommend it. His first book, Predictably Irrational, is a great primer on behavioral economics.

    Ariely, Dan. A Focus on Marketing Research. May 2010. Retrieved from

  2. Jennifer Lee Segilia

    I actually just experienced something quite similar last week. I attended an autism seminar in Hershey, PA for work. Growing up, my great grandparents lived in Palmyra, PA which is close to Hershey. We would visit my great grandparents every year for Thanksgiving. Hershey Park opens from Nov. to Dec. for Christmas. Our tradition was that every Thanksgiving, after dinner, my whole family would visit Hersheypark for their Christmas Candy Land Festivities. I remember wanting to eat dinner and get cleaned up as fast as we could in order to take that long drive to HersheyPark. Once we would get in the car, the ride seemed to take forever, it felt like an hour drive, which for a child is a long, long ride. Once the arduous ride was over, my brother and I would jump out of the car and would be so excited to get on some rides, see the lights and decorations, meet some Hershey characters and Santa, of course, and eat a ton of chocolate and drink the best hot chocolate ever.
    So, last week my seminar was held at the Hershey Country Club. It is about 2 miles from the Park. I arrived 30 minutes early and didn’t feel like going into the seminar that early, I was going to be sitting in the seminar for 6 hours, I really didn’t want to add another half hour onto it. I decided to explore a little. I drove past the entrance to the country club and thought I would just go down the road a few miles to see where that road would end up. Three miles down the road, I found a little town, so I decided to just drive through the main street and see what the town had to offer. I drove a few blocks when things started to feel familiar to me. There was a restaurant and a shop that I could swear I have either seen before or been in before. I couldn’t quite figure out why, but then I looked up and there were banners hanging from the street lamps that said “Downtown Palmyra”. I was so confused. Was there 2 Palmyra’s in PA? Did Palmyra expand? What’s going on here? I was only driving for 5 minutes. Palmyra is an hour from Hershey, not 5 minutes. My great grandparents passed away a long time ago, so I haven’t been to Palmya since childhood, but I know what I know. So, I called my father for some clarification. I told him where I was and where I came from and asked how the heck did I get here in 5 minutes when it should have taken an hour. He laughed and laughed and called me delusional. He didn’t know where I got that “hour” from. He told me that if we really wanted to, we could have walked to the park from my family’s house. The only reason we drove was because it was November in PA… it was cold. He told me that he would show me pictures next I go to his house because there are pictures from my great grandparents backyard with roller coasters in the background.
    It’s amazing how things we experience as children look and feel gigantic and time seems to drag on. As we grow up and go back to places we visited as children, the excitement and the feeling of everything being so exaggerated diminishes. We are left with feelings of disappointment, in a way.

  3. Lori Renee Massander

    I loved your blog because it really touched home for me. Although mine was not about camping it was about a skiing trip I took with my family as a child I remembered things so vividly and was told that this wasn’t exactly how things happened and I found myself devastated. I to asked myself how I could of gotten things so wrong. I remember high slopes and falling so far down and animals as big as dinosaurs roaming in the trees. Skis that were so big I don’t know how I could ever move. However the truth was it was a bunny slope and all skis are big. The lifts were normal but I was just small. I guess it doesn’t just come down to memory but when we had the memories. As children the world is more innocent and things are so big and exciting and I feel this is what leads to those wonderful childhood stories because they may not always be accurate but when your a child the world is what we make of it. So I say continue to tell the world your wonderful story of your camping adventure because although it may not be a completely accurate story of the events, in your childhood mind it truly was your own little exciting adventure. So no matter what the books say or the accuracy it was your true experience.

  4. dyb5173

    I wonder how much of this relates to people who are compulsive liars? I’m not saying that you purposely made this up, but I used to date a guy who had a story for everything. He would lie about the color of his shirt when he was standing right in front of you. Any way, he would always make up these stories and would tell them as if they were true, until I met his family. He would still tell the fabricated stories, but his family would tell them differently if the general situation even ever happened at all. But yet he still continued to lie and insist that when his family told stories that they were the ones getting it wrong or that they were talking about something totally different. It was the strangest thing to watch because once I started to hear different stories being told I was able to catch on to him lying and figured out that he basically lied about everything and lived in a world of his lies to try to make himself seem like a whole different person than he truly was.
    I have experienced a situation much more similar to what you explained above. The way that I perceived an event to happen versus one of my family members are sometimes rather different. For instance, my family visited Hawaii when I was five years old. We went down over my birthday on a trip with one of my dad’s friends. His friend gave me money to buy myself ice cream when he found out it was my birthday and the following night he had a birthday cake brought out to me at a luau. At the luau there was a huge pig roasting on a fire. They had live hula dancers and called everyone up to the stage that had a birthday in March, so I ran up and danced in my souvenir grass skirt and coconut bra. I remember the beaches with black sand, the crystal blue water, and watching surfers that we mistook for sharks from our hotel balcony while eating breakfast. It was such an amazing experience, but how much of this do I actually remember and how much have I falsely created from stories and pictures of the trip? I also kept a diary each day while we were there so I “remember” a lot more than a 21 year old should about a trip I took when I was 5.

  5. Paul Michael Pozzi

    This sort of thing hearkens the idea posed in the 90s to pop culture by the movie Total Recall, and debated significantly before by scientists of many disciplines the world over: what IS reality? I would tend to agree with the various psychologists we’ve read recently for this course, who’ve posited that what reality actually IS is generally immaterial given that our minds each have individual perceptions of reality which vary from person to person. I had this conversation with a female at my house the other day in my back yard (it was one of those “he said, she heard” conversations) wherein I referenced the difference between perception and reality. One of us could argue the grass was kelly green and the other that it was heather green. While the reality is that the grass is actually the same green for both of us, our minds are perceiving it differently. Within the construct of our mind, reality “is” what we perceive it to be. Our minds create the picture for our consciousness and it may be more or less vivid or focused on differing details. While an observer may see a person wearing a red sweatshirt, black ball cap, blue jeans, and white sneakers walking and then suddenly running, the lady whose purse he just snatched likely only saw a red and blue streak surrounding her swiftly receding handbag, if even that much detail. Our minds choose to focus on what we think may be important at the time; in your case you saw tsunami-sized swells and a plush doll reaching out for a morsel while those with a differing perspective saw the same events as a lazy float downstream and a rabid monster attempting to tear your arm off.

    I remember going to the Coco Beach with my mother as a child. The only thing i remember from the week is that I tried to feed a seagull a potato chip and it drew blood pecking my palm to get the chip. I don’t actually remember the incident; that’s what my mother tells me happened. What I remember is being attacked by a giant white feathery pteradactyl-looking creature and, in the ensuing chaos, forgetting where on the beach I’d parked my favorite tractor-trailer toy. Similar to the memory experiments by Loftus and Palmer in 1978, our actual witnessed perception of events can even be skewed by others’ input regarding an event (Goldstein, p. 223).

    So, your version of real during your camping trip might indeed be real but that the same time simply that: your version of real. And there’s nothing wrong with that…

  6. Tiffany Monique Jackson

    Wow, reading your story is amazing. I was so engulfed in what I was reading and until I got to the part about it having been created in your mind, and not actually happening; amazed me. It is almost unimaginable what stories our minds can create and at the same time make us believe they are true. Actually according to the text “our memories from our childhood are actually few of the memories we recall (Wede 2014).” Like you, you have the memory of being in a boat and gliding along the water and seeing the raccoon and reaching over to give him your chicken, but the way you remember it and replayed it in your mind was inaccurate as your aunt stated. Although stated in the text “we have memories from childhood, some of them are very vivid, but all in all the memories are small compared to later points in our life, this is referred to as childhood amnesia (Wede 2014.)” This is possibly what you experienced, even though you remembered bits and pieces of your camping trip you weren’t really able to recall exactly what happened as accurately as your aunt had. Thanks for sharing this story I especially enjoyed the part when your aunt said that all of the adults started screaming. Do you think that this experience you had is related to the childhood amnesia?

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