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The Rashomon Effect: The Truth Is Out There

The many sides of memory

By Arnold
August 24, 2020

Who is Telling the Truth?

Picture this: a terrible crime has occurred. Your elderly neighbor’s beloved cat has been stolen right out of her window! The treacherous deed occurred in the evening, when most of the people on your street were at home enjoying dinner. For this reason, there are plenty of eyewitnesses eager to help your neighbor catch the perpetrator of the cat-astrophe.

Unfortunately, there’s a small problem — everyone that witnessed the event has something different to say. Some think that the event happened after sunset, while others think it occurred in the late hours of night. Some state the thief was a man in his mid 30s, wearing a black mask over his villainous face. Others argue that the thief was a hooligan high-schooler, probably on his way to pawn the cat for some beer money. The discrepancies continue, until the elderly woman realizes that she is no closer to getting her cat back than when she started. She is, effectively, cat-atonic.

Such stories are common occurrences, and a major source of ire for law enforcement. In recent years, scientific studies have proven eyewitness testimonies to be unreliable, with many organizations clamoring against their use in court. However, in many cases, each of the witnesses is still telling the truth — or the truth as they perceive it. Though no individual is being purposefully deceitful, all of their stories paint the same event differently. The truth of what occurred can only be found in the combination of all of these perspectives.

 

The Many Sides of Memory

The term commonly used to describe this phenomenon — “the Rashomon Effect” — originates from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. In the film, a gruesome murder is described by 4 witnesses, and although every witness’s testimony is convincing in its own right, each individual’s account contradicts the rest. Taking a philosophical angle, the film never settles on a certain version of “truth,” thus implying that every person’s version was, in its own way, correct.

Even if you haven’t seen Rashomon, you’ve probably heard of some of the media it inspired—from film to music to novels. For example, in the song “Summer Nights” from the 1971 musical Grease, Sandy and Danny give their friends wildly contrasting accounts of their summer romance, from Sandy’s innocent recollections to Danny’s steamy version of events. In the 1996 film Courage Under Fire, a detective looks into whether to award a posthumous medal of honor to a female army commander, who some accounts describe as a hero, and some, as a coward. Gone Girl, a film-adapted novel published in 2012, unravels the sensational story of a missing woman from the contradicting perspectives of her and her husband. 

Even earlier (millennia earlier, in fact) the ancient Indian religion of Jainism introduced the doctrine of anekāntavāda, or “many-sidedness,” to state that reality has multiple aspects. The Jains believe that immature people are deluded by the aspects of reality that they understand, and use this belief to argue against the aspects of reality that they don’t. This doctrine of a many-sided truth guides the Jains to accept reality only after hearing multiple viewpoints, accepting each perspective as an important component of a bigger picture.

This concept of many-sided truth in the Rashomon effect can then be applied to all memories of events shared by a group of people. Naturally, every individual will have a slightly different version of the same event, influenced by their own subjective emotional state, expectations, and life experiences. However, it is essential to celebrate these differences in memory instead of quarreling over them. When recalling your parents’ wedding, your family might disagree on who caught the bouquet, but what matters is that everyone remembers how happy your parents were when they walked down the aisle.

 

Collaboration Trumps Monologue

Inspired by this concept of the Rashomon effect, My Stories Matter approaches the memory-recording process from a communal perspective. When a user records a memory of a shared event, they are encouraged to invite others who were there to collaborate. Collaborators’ input is added as color-coded text incorporated into the original memory. Soon, as others fill in the gaps of what one individual may have missed, a richer and more detailed story is created. 

Think about telling a story to your buddies in a beloved hometown bar. The memory you are recalling does not belong only to you, but by telling it, you gain the enjoyment of reliving that experience once more. As you recall a particularly juicy incident from your wild and crazy college days, your friends chime in, clamoring in with extra details and offering up their own perspectives. You welcome their input.

Similarly, by inviting collaborators on My Stories Matter, you can share control over the recording of the story. A memory doesn’t just belong to the person who posted it (or brought it up in a bar conversation), just as a story doesn’t belong to only one person who was there. For this reason, My Stories Matter encourages everyone who participated in a shared experience to add their perspective as it can only enrich the memory. Even contradictory details are no cause for dissent, because when all of those details combine, they paint a broader picture of the ‘truth’. 

To quote Akira Kurosawa, “it is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination.” By remembering the stories we share with others, we imagine new possibilities that we otherwise could not. Who knows where the truth lies? What matters is that we can share our experiences with those we love.

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