The mystery of memory lies in the apparent immediateness of the mind’s contact with the vanished past. In “looking back” on our life, we seem to ourselves for the moment to rise above the limitations of time, to undo its work of extinction, seizing again the realities which its on-rushing stream had borne far from us. Memory is a kind of resurrection of the buried past: as we fix our retrospective glance on it, it appears to start anew into life; forms arise within our minds which, we feel sure, must faithfully represent the things that were. We do not ask for any proof of the fidelity of this dramatic representation of our past history by memory. It is seen to be a faithful imitation, just because it is felt to be a revival of the past. To seek to make the immediate testimony of memory more sure seems absurd, since all our ways of describing and illustrating this mental operation assume that in the very act of performing it we do recover a part of our seemingly “dead selves.”
To challenge the veracity of a person’s memory is one of the boldest things one can do in the way of attacking deep-seated conviction. Memory is the peculiar domain of the individual. In going back in recollection to the scenes of other years he is drawing on the secret store-house of his own consciousness, with which a stranger must not intermeddle. To cast doubt on a person’s memory is commonly resented as an impertinence, hardly less rude than to question his reading of his own present mental state. Even if the challenger professedly bases his challenge on the testimony of his own memory, the challenged party is hardly likely to allow the right of comparing testimonies. He can in most cases boldly assert that those who differ from him are lacking in his power of recollection. The past, in becoming the past, has, for most people, ceased to be a common object of reference; it has become a part of the individual’s own inner self, and cannot be easily dislodged or shaken.
Yet, although people in general are naturally disposed to be very confident about matters of recollection, reflective persons are pretty sure to find out, sooner or later, that they occasionally fall into errors of memory. It is not the philosopher who first hints at the mendacity of memory, but the “plain man” who takes careful note of what really happens in the world of his personal experience. Thus, we hear persons, quite innocent of speculative doubt, qualifying an assertion made on personal recollection by the proviso, “unless my memory has played me false.” And even less reflective persons, including many who pride themselves on their excellent memory, will, when sorely pressed, make a grudging admission that they may, after all, be in error. Perhaps the weakest degree of such an admission, and one which allows to the conceding party a semblance of victory, is illustrated in the “last word” of one who has boldly maintained a proposition on the strength of individual recollection, but begins to recognize the instability of his position: “I either witnessed the occurrence or dreamt it.” This is sufficient to prove that, with all people’s boasting about the infallibility of memory, there are many who have a shrewd suspicion that some of its asseverations will not bear a very close scrutiny.