The Stories We Tell Ourselves…

An NPR article on the use of psychology in the search for ships lost during World War II brings a nugget of brain science that memoir writers might appreciate.

The event–an Australian light cruiser named the Sydney sunk by the German raider  HSK Kormoran–took place somewhere in the Indian Ocean. “The problem was that the only witnesses to the battle and the sinking were about 300 German sailors who had abandoned their ship after it had been hit,” the article says. (They were rescued by the Australian military.) The Germans were interrogated after their capture, in an attempt to find where the ships had gone down. But a ship’s exact location is usually only known by the officers on the bridge, and the rescued Germans’ answers varied by hundreds of miles.

Fast-forward to the brain science: Two cognitive scientists from Australia, Kim Kirsner and John Dunn, were brought in by the Finding Sydney Foundation. To them, the varying reports of the Germans resembled the kind of data they saw in memory experiments. To the problem of the lost ships’ location they applied work from British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett, who was  interested in what happens to memory over time. In his experiments, he told subjects a Native American folk tale called “The War of the Ghosts,” then asked the subjects at intervals of hours, days, and weeks to recall it. The story contained several odd word choices and twists of plot. “In their recall attempts, they try to change the elements of the story in a way that made them make more sense,” says Dunn.

That part of the story is so interesting you should just go to the article and read it–it appears about halfway down. The upshot: (quoting the NPR article):

Essentially, the British storytellers tried to make the stories conform to a more traditional Western narrative. This made Bartlett theorize that memory is composed of two parts.

When a memory is made, the content you’re trying to remember is embedded in a schema, or theory of what is going on. Over time, you remember less of the original content and more of the general theory. That is, you remember the basic gist of the story, and supplement it or change it so that it fits a more comfortable mold.

The lesson for memoirists? Watch out. You have a tendency to alter a remembered story to fit a comfortable mold you’ve applied to it. Dig deeper. Probe for the original content; don’t be satisfied with the general theory.

And yes, the Finding Sydney Foundation did locate the German’s sunken raider, and a few days later, the Sydney. They were within 3 nautical miles of the location suggested by the Germans’ memories.

A sonar image shows the seafloor wreckage of the German ship HSK Kormoran.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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