Douwe Draaisma


Unless my memory fails me

How our memory plays tricks on us

Most of us think we know exactly where we were and what we were doing when the Twin Towers fell, when Lady Di died, when John Kennedy was murdered. But these sorts of memories are rarely right: they’re formed later in life, and then twisted.

Douwe Draaisma shows how memories show no more than a single version of reality, and are thus only half-truths. This, according to Draaisma, is because our memories are influenced and formed by our later experiences. Hence the motto of his latest book: ‘Something which happened to you in childhood is often the consequence of an incident in later years.’

How does your memory serve when you are told later in life that your biological father is not the one who brought you up? What happens when you discover that you’ve been deceived by your loved one, and you realize that the deceit has been going on for some time? How are your recollections of a friend or loved one affected if you later find out that they’ve committed some dreadful crime?

Some experiences are so intense that not only do they affect your future, but your past, too. What you only learn at a later age can, from one moment to the next, change the shape of your life story, like a cushion being pressed, leaving behind another shape. So how far can we rely on our memory? How important anyway is that trust? Can memories contradict one another at different times in our lives, and yet both be true? How does another’s personal history affect your own identity, one which is largely formed through memory?

Draaisma poses these sorts of questions, relevant to us all, and produces surprising interpretations as well as a thorough analysis of the workings of the memory, giving us insight into how we constantly revise our pasts.

Why, to a question about our past, do we give a different answer today to the one we gave thirty years ago? Memory, recollection, paths that twist and turn in the labyrinth of time: it is wise and good to have such a brilliant guide into the labyrinth as Douwe Draaisma, who is able to separate sense and nonsense in a book which everyone will come to sooner or later and which thereby, through his examples, be gripping and at times moving to read.

Cees Nooteboom


Douwe Draaisma

Douwe Draaisma (b. 1953) is a Dutch psychologist, university professor and the author of many books on human memory. His best-known book, on autobiographical memory, translated into twenty-five languages, is Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older (2001). He has also written Disturbances of the Mind

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Als mijn geheugen me niet bedriegt (2016). Non-fiction, 176 pages.
Words: 56,000

Themes: memory


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