Have you ever had a disagreement with a friend over something that happened in the past where you remember things one way and the friend remembers them another way? (Yeah, we've probably all experienced that.) And of course that usually begs the question: Who's right and who's wrong?
(Bonus points if you answered, "If it involves Barb -- Barb is always right!")
Well, according to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, you're probably both wrong, at least to some degree.
Stumbling on Happiness is a book about how the mind works, and Gilbert points out (with the help of psychological experiments, etc.) that the brain takes some shortcuts in cramming the "vast universe of our experience" into the "relatively small storage compartment between our ears". He writes:
The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory -- at least not in its entirety. Rather it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase ('Dinner was disappointing') or a small set of key features ('tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter'). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating -- not by actually retrieving -- the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory.
Gilbert adds that information acquired after an event alters one's memory of the event, and the tendency to "fill in the holes in our memories of the past with material from the present is especially powerful when it comes to remembering our emotions".
So I guess it's best to take our memories and those of others with a grain of salt, especially if they involve emotions...