" Memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like....
...Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke.
...In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present.
...The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.
...Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism. When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right.
...One particular difficulty with early memories is their susceptibility to contamination by visual images, such as photographs and video.
...That makes it all the more important for psychologists studying memory to look for confirming evidence when asking people to recall their pasts.
...And yet these untrustworthy memories are among the most cherished we have. Memories of childhood are often made out to have a particular kind of authenticity; we think they must be pure because we were cognitively so simple back then. We don't associate the slipperiness of memory with the guilelessness of youth. When you read descriptions of people's very early memories, you see that they often function as myths of creation. Your first memory is special because it represents the point when you started being who you are.
...What should we do about this troublesome mental function? For one thing, I don't think we should stop valuing it. Memory can lead us astray, but then it is a machine with many moving parts, and consequently many things that can go awry. Perhaps even that is the wrong way of looking at it. The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly the thing it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.
...That's how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self. It's important not to push the analogy with storytelling too far, but it's a valuable one"
Excerpts from Rewriting The Self, Mark Freeman