False memories are an odd thing — they can seem as real, or more real, than things you’ve actually done.
I was reminded of this in doing research for my Fourth of July Independence Day Travel Trivia Quiz.
It seems that Thomas Jefferson was convinced later in his life that on July 4, 1776, an elaborate mass signing ceremony of his Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia. The Second Continental Congress did adopt the document that day, declaring U.S. independence from Britain.
Except the signing ceremony never happened as he remembered it. Most delegates didn’t sign the document until August 2, nearly a month later.
I’ve always prided myself on my memory, especially where travel is concerned. For instance, I can tell you that when I was ten years old and my family was driving out to California from Indiana, we spent the first night in the Kel-Lake Motel in Joplin, Missouri, which cost $8 a night.
Some of my friends have accused me of remembering every meal I ever ate. An exaggeration, but especially if it was travel-related, I can at least tell you if it was fish, meat, or fowl. And sometimes a lot more than that.
But I have at least one clear travel memory that I’ve contended for years was true — except it never happened.
When I was five years old, my family and I took a trip to New York City. I have a vivid memory of us climbing to the top of the Statue of Liberty and looking out over the harbor — from the torch, no less, that Lady Liberty holds up in her right arm.
My parents always said no, we didn’t climb the Statue of Liberty, and I always insisted they were wrong: until, on a visit with my mother a few weeks ago, we checked her diary for that year.
It turns out that we did take a boat out to the Statue — but never even set foot on Liberty Island, much less climbed the Statue. (And, it turns out, no visitor has been allowed to climb up into the torch since 1916 — well before my time!)
OK, I was just five years old, so maybe that’s a decent excuse. But I’ve had that memory for decades.
To my relief, recent studies have shown that everyone — even those with very good memories — have false memories of one type or another. People, it turns out, are very susceptible to suggestion, and over time the suggestion becomes a memory, and a convincing one at that. As a 5-year-old, I was probably quite anxious to climb the Statue and my brain simply made it happen.
Some false memories can be very serious, such as those that have resulted in wrongful imprisonments due to faulty eyewitness accounts.
Others, like my Statue of Liberty memory, aren’t particularly important at all — though they are puzzling and do make me wonder what other travel-related memories I have that may not be true.
Is it possible that I didn’t really climb Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary? Did I really not have a Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn?
I’m not sure I want to find out.
And yes, I did finally climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty when we moved to New York some years ago.
At least…I think I did.
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