Being There: Narcissism and Selective Memory

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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“(In the) Kanizsa triangle, after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa, who created it in 1955 ... (t)here is of course no actual triangle in the picture, except for the one your brain puts there.

"Your brain does all these things for you because it is designed to help you in every way it can. Yet paradoxically it is also strikingly unreliable. Some years ago, a psychologist at the University of Cali­fornia at Irvine, Elizabeth Loftus, discovered that it is possible through suggestion to implant entirely false memories in people's heads -- to convince them that they were traumatically lost in a department store or shopping mall when they were small or that they were hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland -- even though these things never hap­pened. (Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character and has never been at Disneyland.) She could show many people pictures of themselves as a child in which the image had been manipulated to make them look as if they were in a hot-air balloon, and often the subjects would suddenly remember the experience and excitedly describe it, even though in each case it was known that it had never happened.

... (O)nly about one-third of people are that gullible -- but other evidence shows that we all sometimes completely misrecall even the most vivid events. In 2001, immediately after the 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center in New York, psycholo­gists at the University of Illinois took detailed statements from seven hundred people about where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the event. One year later, the psychologists asked the same question of the same people and found that nearly half now contradicted themselves in some significant way -- put themselves in a different place when they learned of the disaster, believed that they had seen it on TV when in fact they had heard it on the radio, and so on -- but without being aware that their recollections had changed.

"Memory storage is idiosyncratic and strangely disjointed. The mind breaks each memory into its component parts -- names, faces, locations, contexts, how a thing feels to the touch, even whether it is living or dead-and sends the parts to different places, then calls them back and reassembles them when the whole is needed again. A single fleeting thought or recollection can fire up a million or more neurons scattered across the brain. Moreover, these fragments of memory move around over time, migrating from one part of the cortex to another, for reasons entirely unknown. It's no wonder we get details muddled.
"The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, 'It's a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.' "

(The Body by Bill Bryson, Doubleday, 2019, pp. 56-58)

I am often shocked when presented with incontrovertible evidence to an event in my past, something I said, or did, a person I knew, a sentence I have written. I do not remember having done, said, or written what is attributed to me. I do not recall having met the person, having felt anything, having been there. It is not that it looks alien to me, as though it happened to someone else. I simply have no recollection whatsoever, I draw a blank. Hence my enormous and recurrent and terrifyingly helpless state of surprise. These cognitive distortions, these lapses of memory are as close as I ever get to losing control.

My terror is mixed with voyeuristic fascination. Through the writings, through the reconstructed utterances, through a careful study of what that other, previous, "Sam" has done, or said, or written - I come to learn myself. I meet myself on numerous occasions, reflections in the shattered mirrors of my dysfunctional, selective memory. These frequent occurrences of dissociative amnesia - when I repress the painful, the irrelevant, the useless - are the fabric of the punctuated being that is I.

But what are the rules determining this ruthless and automatic censorship? What governs the selection process? What events, people, writings, thoughts, emotions, hopes are cast into my oblivion - and why do others etch themselves indelibly? Is the repository of my discarded reality - my True Self, that dilapidated, immature, scared and atrophied little child inside me? Am I afraid to get in touch with memory itself, spun from the yarn of pains and disappointments? In short: is this an emotional involvement prevention mechanism?

(continued below)

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It's not. On introspection, I simply erase and atomize that which is no longer of use in the pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. I read books, magazines, Web pages, research papers, official memoranda, and daily papers. I then retain in accessible long term memory only the facts, the views, the news, the theories, the words that can help me elicit Narcissistic Supply. Like the proverbial squirrel, I amass intellectual assets that yield the maximum astonishment, adulation, and attention in my listeners. All the rest I discard contemptuously, though, by now, after decades of self-training, unconsciously. I, therefore, rarely remember anything I read just minutes after having read it. I cannot recall movie plots, story lines of novels, a reasoned argument in an article, the history of any nation, or things I myself have authored. No matter how many times I re-read my own essays, I find them absolutely new, none of the sentences recognizable. I then proceed to forget them instantly.

Similarly, I alter my biography at will, to suit the potential Sources of Narcissistic Supply who happen to be listening. I say things not because I believe in them, nor because I know them to be true (in truth, I know very little and ignorant of much). I say things because I am desperately trying to impress, provoke responses, bask in the glow of affirmation, extract applause. Naturally, I very soon forget what I said. Not the result of a coherent structure of deeply assimilated and integrated knowledge, or of a set of convictions - my utterances, judgements, opinions, beliefs, wishes, plans, analyses, comments, and narratives are ephemeral improvisations. Here today, gone tomorrow, unbeknownst to me.

Before I meet someone, I learn everything I can about him. I then proceed to acquire superficial knowledge that is certain to create the impression of genius bordering on omniscience. If I am to meet a politician from Turkey, whose hobby is farming, and is the author of books about ancient pottery - I will while away days and nights studying Turkish history, ancient pottery, and farming. Not an hour after the meeting - having inspired awesome admiration in my new acquaintance - all the facts I so meticulously memorized evaporate, never to return. The original views I expressed so confidently vanish from my mind. I am preoccupied with my next prey and with his predilections and interests.

My life is not a thread, it is a patchwork of chance encounters, haphazard exams, and the drug of Narcissistic Supply consumed. I feel like a series of still frames, somehow improperly animated. I know the audience is there. I crave their adulation. I try to reach out, to break the mould of the album of photographs that I became - to no avail. I am trapped in there forever. And if none of you chooses to inspect my image at a given moment, I fade, in sepia colours. Until I am no longer.

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