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Stories We Tell: How we reconstruct the past

By Arthur P. Shimamura


Our memories, in many ways, define who we are as an individual or at least who we think we are. In the recent documentary, Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley presents her own tale of the search for her biological father. Through interviews with relative and friends, snapshots, and re-enactments of pertinent events that look like old home movies, the documentary moves like a real-life Rashomon, wherein bits of the “truth” are revealed from various points of views. The stories revolve around Sarah’s mother, Diane Polley, a stage actress who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 years old. The “seminal” event, if you will, took place nine months before Sarah’s birth, when Diane took an extended leave and moved hundreds of miles away from home and family to perform in a play in Montreal. As such, there was opportunity and several prime suspects in the mystery of Sarah’s biological father.

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell.

During family gatherings, jokes were often made that Sarah didn’t really look like anyone else in the family, particularly Michael, Sarah’s putative father. Michael, however, never questioned his paternity as he did visit Diane in Montreal during her time away. Much of the film is presented from Michael’s perspective, though we very soon appreciate the disparity of interpretations through other players, including Sarah’s biological father (part of the fun is the revelation of who this man is, and I won’t spoil the fun). With Sarah’s mother unable to provide her own recollections, we are left with Michael’s story, the biological father’s story (which has its own depth and poignancy), and Sarah’s perspective as defined by what she decided to portray in the re-enactments and how she decided to edit the interviews. Indeed, an essential and wonderfully pertinent aspect of the movie is the way Polley shows how memories are reconstructed “stories” built from true experiences plastered with fictional additions and modifications.

Memory researchers have long viewed recollections as stories that are reconstituted each time we tell them. As we replay our memories, we add to and color the past. In a chilling retelling of a life event, New York Times columnist and former drug addict David Carr documented his recollection of a day twenty years earlier when he was fired from a job (Carr, 2008, The Night of the Gun, see interview). He remembers going to a bar with an old college buddy, Donald, to “celebrate” his firing. Spiked with pills, booze, and cocaine, Carr’s behavior was so erratic that he was asked to leave the bar. While outside the premises, Donald complained about Carr’s behavior, which led to him being pushed by Carr against his own Ford LTD. Carr remembers Donald driving off without him but later phoning his friend at home to tell him “I’m coming over” in a rather menacing tone. His friend advises against it and says he has a gun. Ignoring the admonition, Carr arrives at Donald’s door and confronts his friend who has “a handgun at his side.” An altercation breaks out with Carr smashing a window with his fist, Donald calling the cops and saying: “You should leave. They’re coming right now.” Twenty years later, Carr discussed his recollections with Donald, who confirmed much of Carr’s recollection of the day, except for a critical feature—it wasn’t he who had the gun.

The preeminent psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted ingenious experiments about the malleability of our memories and how life events can interfere with each other and blend across time. She has shown that our recollections are indeed reconstructions that are partly true and partly fiction. She has even managed to convince individuals of remembering that they were once lost in a shopping mall, though the “memory” was planted by Loftus in cahoots with a family member. Brain scientists have shown that when we have a strong recollection of a past event (even if it’s a false memory), the posterior parietal cortex (PPC) is particularly active. This brain region has been viewed as a convergence zone or integrative area. That is, pieces of an event are stored in various parts of the brain—such as visual ones stored along paths emanating from the back of the brain (V1)—and become linked together as we reconstruct the past. When we try to retrieve a past experience, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) helps guide and search for the stray pieces, and the PPC glues the pieces together as an encapsulated memory, such as remembering a particularly good meal with friends at a new restaurant (figure from Shimamura, 2013).

(c) Arthur P. Shimamura.

Whenever we reminisce about the past, we build stories based on “re-collecting” details of prior events. Movies act as a powerful means of visually narrating our life stories, and Polley’s film offers both a documentation of a personal experience and a lesson in how the telling of our past can be colored. During the movie, one realizes that what looks like footage from home movies from a shaky Super 8 camera are actually re-enactments, the kind of dramatizations often presented in cheesy history documentaries seen on TV. I tend to dislike such portrayals, yet in Polley’s film these re-creations foster the notion that our own memories are reconstructions of the past. One moral of Stories We Tell is that we may never fully know how we got to where we are today. As David Carr has said about his own recollections: “You can’t know the whole truth, but if there is one it lies in the space between people.”

Arthur P. Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies (ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

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