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Enough has, perhaps, been said to show how much of uncertainty and of self-deception enters into the processes of memory. This much-esteemed faculty, valuable and indispensable though it certainly is, can clearly lay no claim to that absolute infallibility which is sometimes said to belong to it. Our individual recollection, left to itself, is liable to a number of illusions even with regard to fairly recent events, and in the case of remote ones it may be said to err habitually and uniformly in a greater or less degree. To speak plainly, we can never be certain on the ground of our personal recollection alone that a distant event happened exactly in the way and at the time that we suppose. Nor does there seem to be any simple way by mere reflection on the contents of our memory of distinguishing what kinds of recollection are likely to be illusory.
How, then, it may be asked, can we ever be certain that we are faithfully recalling the actual events of the past? Given a fairly good, that is, a cultivated memory, it may be said that in the case of very recent events a man may feel certain that, when the conditions of careful attention at the time to what really happened were present, a distinct recollection is substantially correct. Also it is obvious that with respect to all repeated experiences our memories afford practically safe guides. When memory becomes the basis of some item of generalized knowledge, as, for example, of the truth that the pain of indigestion has followed a too copious indulgence in rich food, there is little room for an error of memory properly so called. On the other hand, when an event is not repeated in our experience, but forms a unique link in our personal history, the chances of error increase with the distance of the event; and here the best of us will do well to have resort to a process of verification or, if necessary, of correction.
In order thus to verify the utterances of memory, we must look beyond our own internal mental states to some external facts. Thus, the recollections of our early life may often be tested by letters written by ourselves or our friends at the time, by diaries, and so on. When there is no unerring objective record to be found, we may have recourse to the less satisfactory method of comparing our recollections with those of others. By so doing we may reach a rough average recollection which shall at least be free from any individual error corresponding to that of personal equation in perception. But even thus we cannot be sure of eliminating all error, since there may be a cause of illusion acting on all our minds alike, as, for example, the extraordinary nature of the occurrence, which would pretty certainly lead to a common exaggeration of its magnitude, etc., and since, moreover, this process of comparing recollections affords an opportunity for that reading back a present preconception into the past to which reference has already been made.