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Why History Rhymes Rather Than Repeats

Updated on September 28, 2012
Mark Twain
Mark Twain

"History doesn't repeat itself - at best it sometimes rhymes"; according to Mark Twain.

A recent Northwestern University medical study sheds some light on why this is the case. When an event is recalled, the networks in the brain change in a way that alters the future recollection of the same event. Donna Bridge is a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She is the lead author of a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience that discusses memory and recollection. According to her, memory becomes less accurate over time; and may even lead to a totally false recollection.

She observed that memories can be altered by mood swings and the changes in the environment over time. The flexible nature of memory therefore allows for changes to be incorporated into memories of an event over time. Her empirical evidence comes from a repeated memory test that she performed on subjects; in relation to the location of objects on a computer screen. Subjects being tested had a tendency to place the objects further from the correct location; on repeated attempts after first viewing the correct layout.

The pattern of neural signals, recorded at each test, suggested that new memories were being created when the object was placed further from the original position. When the object was placed closer to the original position, the neural signal pattern suggested a new memory was less likely to be created.

Ken Paller,psychology professor at Northwestern in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, drew the following conclusions:

  • That memories change over time;and that
  • When retrieving information about an event, the subject may be referencing information created about that event at some later time than when it originally occurred.

History, or rather our memory of it, therefore never totally repeats itself. It simply rhymes at first; and then plays a totally different tune with further recollection and personal experience. History may ultimately be how we imagined it, rather than what actually happened.

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