Time Warps Adult Memories

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Posted by Deb on June 03, 2000 at 13:47:22 from

I like this article that I got from NHNE.... it fits with 'letting the past go'.... and just get on with our lives, as well as why it's important to let some roles we might play in the lives others become obsolete.

[Deb sidenote ~ I tried this link and the article has already been moved into the 'pay per view' section of the Chicago Tribune Newspaper Archives (after only 2 days!!! ~geeezzzz!~) money, money, money ~ money! (song lyrics)]


[nhnenews] Time Warps Adult Memories
Sat, 03 Jun 2000 09:42:03 -0700

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Here's another very important story that I hope everyone will take time to read and ponder. Thanks to Charles T. Tart.

--- David Sunfellow


Adult recollections like distorted video, study shows
By Jeremy Manier
Tribune Staff Writer
June 1, 2000


Time's tendency to warp how adults recall their youth is so commonplace that many families treat the problem as a running joke, including yarns about how some older relative used to walk every day to school‹seven miles, in the snow. Uphill. Both ways.

According to a paper published Thursday by researchers at Northwestern University, adults' memories of their youth are even worse than most eye-rolling adolescents would suspect. The study nails down the peculiar human tendency to alter the past, sometimes portraying it as tougher than it really was, but often making it rosier.

Experts said the results may drive another stake into the widely held but probably mistaken notion that the mind replays events exactly as they happened, like videotapes.

In an unusual memory study spanning nearly 40 years, the team found that a group of 48-year-old men had wildly inaccurate recollections of how they answered questions they were asked when they were freshmen in Chicago-area high schools.

It turns out the adults' memories were way off about a number of issues, including their perceptions of their mother's love for them, how much their fathers disciplined them and how important friendships were.

Some of the mistakes may say more about how the men's current attitudes shape their memories than how they actually saw things when they were younger.

They generally remembered their fathers as stricter than they reported at the time and overestimated how much they had enjoyed intellectual activities when they were first interviewed in 1962.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the only responses the adult men recalled correctly was how important they had thought it was as teenagers to have a girlfriend (The answer: Very).

"It is often said that adolescence is the period in the life cycle that is most difficult to see clearly," the team wrote, led by Northwestern psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Offer. "Our study demonstrated that this may indeed be so."

Offer's paper is in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, released Thursday.

The study is a follow-up of sorts to Offer's 1969 book, "The Psychological World of the Teenager," which was based on his original interviews. His latest effort, however, might be called "The Psychological World of the Aging Baby Boomer."

The resulting freeze frames of memories over the decades provide an unusual way of testing a controversial theory about how the mind retrieves memories.

Although memories seem stable, many psychologists believe remembering can be a haphazard and unreliable process.

Offer's results give fresh evidence that memories are reconstructed from scratch, often introducing errors, said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle specializing in false memories.

"I think this is going to be very important," Loftus said. "This is going to help show that we have memory distortions for all kinds of childhood experience."

Such broad implications were the last thing Offer had on his mind when he began his project in the early 1960s.

As best he can remember, the study started when Offer was a 31-year-old psychiatric resident at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, interested in testing prevailing theories that teenagers needed some turmoil and rebellion to grow into normal adults.

He got permission from school officials and parents to do psychological interviews with 73 male students from middle- to upper-income families at two area high schools‹one on the North Shore and one in the south suburbs. The names of the schools and study subjects are still confidential, he said.

The study was influential in its conclusion that most teenagers managed fine despite having little inner turmoil, Offer said. "We had no notion of following up on it at the time."

To find all of the participants in the original study, Offer, now 69,
enlisted the help of Marjorie Kaiz, a journalist and Offer's wife. Between 1995 and 1998, Offer's team interviewed 67 of the surviving men, traveling to 24 states.

"We thought since they were so cooperative, the memories would be much better," Offer said.

But to the team's surprise, most of the men's recollections matched their prior responses no better than would be expected by mere chance.

The study did not ask the men what they felt when they were 14. It asked them to remember how they answered certain questions during interviews when they were 14. The difference is important because it makes the study one about memory, not about how their attitudes have changed.

Nonetheless, some of the altered memories may have been shaped by societal changes. For instance, 44 percent of the men thought they would have said it was OK to start having sex during high school; in fact, only 15 percent gave that answer as teenagers.

"That could be one reason why the memory is so poor; it tends to meld into what society thinks is appropriate now," Offer said.

The men may also have been affected by changing views about physical
punishment‹as young men, 82 percent said they received physical punishment, though only 33 percent of the adults recalled such experiences.

Such outcomes, Offer said, should make psychiatrists take their patients' memories of their personal histories with "a grain of salt‹or a small rock."

Loftus agreed.

"The implications are enormous," Loftus said, "because [therapists] do spend so much time trying to talk about the past, pressing theories about how the past affects the present."

If nothing else, such work illustrates how difficult it can be for adults to understand the problems of children‹even when they're recalling their own lives. Richard Peck, a writer of teen novels who taught high school English at Glenbrook North during the '60s, said his attempts to identify with adolescents through his writing go against his own impulses.

"Nobody remembers more about that time than they can help," Peck said.


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