I played soccer as a kid. We won a lot of games and we celebrated each win with a bottle of Fanta. I remember that orange bottle, the sweet carbonation and that awesome feeling of being refreshed after a big win.

And, only the first 1.5 sentences are true. I never drank a Fanta after a soccer win. I had a few at birthday parties but I have no memories of that. My memories of Fanta are grouped around soccer wins.

Why is that?

Blame memory reconsolidation

Jonah Lehrer published a fascinating article about this topic in Wired, titled “Ads implant false memories”

“The answer returns us to a troubling recent theory known as memory reconsolidation. In essence, reconsolidation is rooted in the fact that every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. What’s disturbing, of course, is that we can’t help but borrow many of our memories from elsewhere, so that the ad we watched on television becomes our own, part of that personal narrative we repeat and retell.

This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory.  It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. And so that pretty picture of popcorn becomes a taste we definitely remember, and that alluring soda commercial becomes a scene from my own life. We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal.”

Sounds disturbing and fascinating at the same time. We all know that episodic memories differ from individual to individual. And that they change over time. Just ask the police about eyewitness testimony. Or your family.

We use commercial communication to fill the gaps in our memories. Just like we use movies and music. Makes me wonder how much of our memory scripts are based on outside sources and not reality. Are we kissing the way we kiss because we saw it in movies? Are we celebrating the way we do because we saw it in a commercial?

Whenever we think we know the human a tad better, things get more complicated.