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Liar, Liar

Screw that Harry Potter, I’m a better sorcerer than he, by far. And I’d better be, because I’m fighting a pitched battle, all the while Popular Science is telling me I can’t believe in my magic.

Nonetheless, I’m brewing an alchemical talisman that no curiously scarred four-eyed wannabe could whip up: Caffeine, alcohol and stubborn nostalgia are my ingredients, and a liar’s instinct my guide—not a kindly owl, or whatever.

I’ve got a spell to cast because technological progress is trying to dismantle my identity, threatening me with the dire specter of the objective truth. I’m brewing a potion to protect all the best moments of my life—all my precious, fond, awkward, enlightening recollections of days passed.

New research on the functioning of memory has revealed some fascinating, frightening things. According to psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, “Memory is a creative event, born anew every day. You fill in the holes every time you reconstruct an event in your own mind.”

Because much of what you experience sensorially is fleeting—not just in its actual, external duration, but as experience—your brain compensates, provides continuity where none actually exists in your memory. The sensation is there—on your skin or in your ear—and then it’s gone: A chill wind plays across the hair of your neck immediately after a haircut, your skin still warm from the barber’s straight-razor tidying; later a companion in a bar introduces you to a friend, with whom you chat for an hour. Was the wind from the east? Was the barber himself clean-shaven? Was there anyone in the chair next to you? Did you shiver at the first touch of the blade? How was traffic on the way to your appointment with your friend? How was the radio reception? What did you order at the bar? The bartender had a combover? A mohawk? The conversational partner—was it Julia, Julie, Judy, Morgan?—the blonde, the strawberry-blonde, the raven-haired one, she wore a turtleneck, a novelty T-shirt, a denim jumpsuit, a lobster bib and leather chaps? Most information just never makes it into your permanent files, so to speak. So your compliant liar’s brain embellishes, gives your memories a scaffolding on which you can drape those scenes recalled in more vivid colors, the ones that pop (as a lobster bib and leather chaps likely would).

For this sensation to stick, scientists surmise, there must be a process of translation. The sensory input must be translated into language, in which form it can be more easily stored (this is, of course, a lay explanation—and doubtless a shabby one—of how the neuro-mechanics accomplish this near-miraculous feat). It’s for this reason clever hostesses repeat names of new acquaintances to themselves several times after an introduction, translating the sound of a voice, the visual impact of a hairstyle, the crook of an elbow into a word (say, “Monty”), and into a memory (Monty the stuttering man in bell-bottoms and flip-flops who upended the punchbowl at the piano recital, and took a nerve-racking 20 minutes to conclude a staccato “s-s-s-s-s-sooo s-s-s-s-sorr-sssoorrr-sorry,” for example).

By force of biological necessity then, your memories are stories. Anecdotes. And according to scientists and psychologists, you’re making them up as you go along—adding, subtracting, shifting, expanding, retracting details at every recollection and retelling. Your life, in other words, is a fable. An oral tradition of tall tales and legends that you tell yourself about yourself.

As a storyteller, a compulsive embellisher, I’m cool with this. I think I knew it all along. I am no more or less than the stories I tell about myself to myself. Brilliant. Then I can be anything at all, and at any moment suddenly shift emphasis. I can emerge from my time as a gothic horror—out from the shadows of towering and blatant symbols of my sneaky subconscious desires—into a briefly frolicsome incarnation as comedy of manners, or star as a rogue in my own picaresque episode. I would have it no other way. Who would? Who would renounce the chance to truly author one’s own life? To sit cross-legged in the warmth of the fire and create your own folklore. You’re a conjurer, a shaman—hell, a god creating life by force only of language. If you say there was light, then damn it, boy, there was light. If you tell a convincing story, we’ll remember it along with you.

But beware. There are cynics, doubters and apostates who’ve turned their backs on the faith and will quiz and question you, trying to unravel your recollections. In the past, it was a war of words, and he who told it best won (this being a corollary of the history-as-the-story-of-winners theory). Now, though, scientists are saying that there may just be a way to sift the fanciful memories from the factual. And, honestly, that scares the hell out of me.

A Harvard neuropsychologist, Daniel Schacter, has discovered that, deep buried in the gray matter, the parahippocampal gyrus lights up brain scans with increased activity for true, but not false, memories. Schacter’s work has been typified as “preliminary,” but it has fueled the once-faltering hope that such a test could be devised. The forensic usefulness of such a technique aside, I’m comfortable in coming out against it, for purely selfish reasons.

Tonight, I’m sitting in my living room with a nostalgically loaded CD carousel (I’ve got Slanted and Enchanted, an early Spaceman 3 demo, the soundtrack of Killing Zoë, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Coltrane’s My Favorite Things). I’m hoping that I’ve calibrated the intake of coffee and red wine such that I’m both alert and loose, sharply spacey. That’s the best state for time travel. I’m headed into some stories that I’ve told myself about a certain time and a certain place in the past, and I’ve got no patience for anyone trying to peer behind my curtain while I perform my sleight-of-mind.

—John Rodat 

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