Memories: Who knows where they’re going? Who knows where they’ve been?
When I was about two years of age I was taken to Singapore on an aeroplane as we called them then. I’ve been back there many times since and I am in awe of the journey and the length of time it takes to fly there now, non-stop. Modern planes and all that.
But imagine this. When I first flew out to Singapore it took about a week to get there. Not hours, but a whole week.
We flew in a Hermes – the days before jet flight, and we stopped many times to refuel, for lunch or to stay overnight. If I strain, I think – think being the clue here – that I can recall it. But can I really?
I think I can recall smells of places we landed, and some of the people we met on the way. I cannot recall faces or what the smells represented, but I know if I walk somewhere and I get a whiff of something it can take me right back to ‘somewhere’ I’ve been. I expect many of you know what I mean. The people are a bit more like shadows, impressions, more than an actual entity I could recognise if you put them in front of me.
Memory is a weird thing. What do we actually remember? Do we think we remember something because we’ve heard about it so many times – a family story perhaps – eventually believing it was an event we were witness to or part of…how do we know?
As tiny babies and children we are taken all over the place in cars, boats, planes, and trains; we’ve been places, yet we don’t generally remember being taken there. Isn’t that strange? We can say we have been to this place or that but have little or no memory of the event at all. Yet we were there.
During the trip to Singapore we stopped off in many countries – both on the outward and return journey some years later – but I don’t really remember any of it. I know I was there because my Mother’s Passport tells me I was. Two weeks (in total) travelling to so many exotic places and I cannot remember anything about them. Or can I?
We stopped in Rome for lunch – nope, I don’t recall that at all.
Flying on to Nicosia in Cyprus where we stopped overnight. I’d have to say I don’t recall that at all. No smells come to mind either. Yet I was there.
We next flew to Bahrain – you’d think I’d recall that, but all I think I can conjure up is that the tarmac melted as we stepped on to it and a strange man carried me to the airport buildings. Do I remember this or is it a family tale I only think I recall? I cannot honestly say. But it happened. I was there.
Flying to India we stopped off at Dum Dum airport in Karachi, then we travelled on to Dehli, and a day later to Calcutta and I believe I can recall the smells of the airports as we landed – just like in modern times when you fly into Los Angeles airport, for example, and step outside for the first time and there is a definite fragrance in the air – that memorable. But do I really?
We were met off the plane at one of these airports in India by a lady in a long dress (I know now it was a Sari) and she had a red mark on her forehead and her bare feet had what I guess now, must have been rings on them. She had a ring through her nose. Apparently I took one look and screamed. Poor woman, what on earth must she have thought!
I remember it – or do I? I’m sure I do. But then again I’ve been told this so many times it may well not be a memory at all. The ‘feeling’ of it happening is with me, if that counts – I’m not sure. Yet I was there.
Bangkok. Do I recall anything about Bangkok?
I want to say the smell of the trees but whether that is true or not I have no idea. I seem to recall the Mimosa trees in Singapore as well, but can I rely on it all to be a real memories?
We arrived in Singapore to meet up with my Father who had been in Korea (War) having left England soon after my birth, so apart from a brief acquaintance with me aged a couple of months, we’d never really had an introduction. According to my Mother every man we ever met was called Dad by me and that led to some embarrassing incidents and comments I’m told – of course I don’t remember that!
We lived with my Grandfather so he was called Dad too. The Station Master at the local railway station near our home, fed-up with being called Dad, told my Mother, ‘I think it’s about time you told that child who her Father is.’ I can imagine that went down well.
Upon meeting my Father on the tarmac at Kallang (as it was) airport, Singapore, I shot up my Mother’s skirt and refused to come out until ‘that man’ went away, having taken objection to his kissing her. I definitely don’t remember that. They never forgot it.
I am convinced I can recall much about Singapore; sitting on the steps of our apartment hearing the soldiers outside on the parade ground, going through their paces. Is that an actual memory or has my family told the story so many times I believe it to be true? But sitting on those steps – which I did daily apparently – I must have heard the parade drills.
Then there was my little friend, a girl who lived in the apartment above us. I’m unsure as to whether I actually remember her or if the many photos of us together is the only ‘memory’ of her that is real.
I learned to swim there and spent a lot of my time in the sea or the swimming pool where we lived. I think I can recall going swimming with my little friend, but then there are photos of us together on the steps of a pool, so who knows? Memory or false memory?
I had an Amah, a lady who lived in and looked after me although she was employed to clean and cook as well. My Mother didn’t feel comfortable having her do that, so mostly she cared for me and did the washing and ironing.
Whenever I smell fish, raw or cooked, I’m immediately back in her room, squatting on the floor eating from bowls with chopsticks – rice and fish. I hate fish, I cannot stand the smell and I have no idea why I would eat it with her but apparently it is true. I know it is. I can taste it just thinking about it.
The first time as an adult, I held chopsticks I knew how to use them – I remembered.
Since those times in Singapore I have travelled and lived all over the world, as a child and an adult, and although the earlier memories are vivid to me, they are also unreliable.
Thankfully photos can be a record of events, but even those can’t tell the whole story. If you’ve had someone with you, experiencing the same things at the same time as you, you’d think your collective memory would be far more reliable. Think again.
One of the Forensic and Criminal Science courses I’ve taken (2015 through to earlier this year), involved Witness Investigations by Police. In short, how to interview a witness or witnesses to an event/crime and how to prevent them – if more than one was present – from exchanging information about what they saw, so they won’t influence each other’s statement of events. It covered how to interview witnesses to get the maximum ‘memories’ from them which are real, and not the gaps which their brains might have filled in for them.
This is called the co-witnessing effect.
This particular course was fascinating. It revealed just how susceptible we are to what other people tell us, to such an extent that we don’t believe the evidence of our own eyes. We can be swayed to agree to someone else’s version of events. As time passes our memories become unreliable and we tend to fill in gaps with what we have been told, seen, read or heard and even our brain does a bit of gap filling too.
This is called unconscious transference.
By the time we relate the story for the umpteenth time it may well bear no resemblance to what we actually witnessed and what happened. Detectives are now trained to interview witnesses with this in mind quickly, after an event and on their own without any prompting or showing them evidence – for example (photos of a suspect perhaps), until the witness has told their story in their own words and time.
Not allowing a witness to tell their story uninterrupted and with comments about what may or may not have happened according to the Police or other witnesses – suggesting facts to someone – is known as asking leading questions and suggestibility.
I have to wonder therefore, if what I think are memories of Singapore are, in actual fact, what is known as a false memory and whether as time has passed I have been suffering from what is known as change blindness.
The story changes over time and it is gradually believed to be true by the person ‘remembering’ it.
Filling in the gaps and allowing these ‘memories’ to become fact as far as I am concerned might well have happened to me.
Our memories do not operate like a computer, but instead are constructive in nature and can be changed when presented with post-event information or the views of another person.
Police need to be exceptionally careful when dealing with the testimony of an eyewitness and should never rely on eyewitness memory alone.
This also means that police investigations, particularly interviewing and identification techniques, must be based on psychological knowledge if they are to avoid contaminating the memory of a witness and prosecuting an innocent person. A great deal of psychological research has been conducted in this area, and many police forces around the world have been able to improve their procedures as a result.
Police are now aware of the importance of psychology in dealing with witnesses and their testimony. It is indeed a fascinating part of the Criminal Justice process.
I am aware that what I have just told you about my memories of travelling and living in Singapore may well fall under one or more of the above.
As a child I didn’t know where I was going and unless someone had told me, I’d have no knowledge today, of where I’ve been.
Do I have memories? Who knows.
Yet I was there.