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10 Mind-Altering Facts About Memory

Heather Ramsey

As researcher Donna Bridge once said, “When someone tells me they are sure they remember exactly the way something happened, I just laugh.” Our memories are in a constant state of flux, whether changed by accident or manipulated on purpose. You may not realize it, but by the time you finish reading this list, your memory will be altered.

10The Way You Lie Impacts Your Memory

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Your ability to remember your lies may depend on how you lie. Researchers at Louisiana State University studied two types of lies—false descriptions and false denials—to see how we record them in memory and later retrieve them. False descriptions are detailed lies we make up to report an event that didn’t happen. False denials are usually brief lies in which we declare that something isn’t true.

It turns out that false descriptions are much easier to remember. They’re more accessible and last longer because they take more effort to construct. If the listener doesn’t appear to believe your lie, then you have to work even harder to make that lie believable. Most of the study participants could remember their false descriptions after 48 hours.

On the other hand, false denials are quick and relatively effortless. You don’t have to make up details, so your brain doesn’t work as hard. Most of the study participants couldn’t remember their false denials after 48 hours.

The researchers believe that their findings are important for criminal interrogations, but they point out that innocent suspects have a hard time remembering truthful denials, too.

9Cleaning Your Memory May Help You Win Sports Bets

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You may not win every time, but according to researchers at University College London and the University of Montreal, you can probably be trained to predict the winner of a sports event almost as well as a statistical computer program.

You see, our brains usually make decisions based on a limited number of memories. But those memories may be misleading if the retrieved events didn’t produce the most likely outcomes. In other words, we’re using bad data chosen randomly to make a prediction. Garbage in, garbage out.

In the study, two groups were asked to predict the winners of some baseball games. The “actual” group was told the actual outcomes of the games. But the “ideal” group was always told that the highest-ranking team won—even when it wasn’t true. This “cleaned” the memories of the ideal group by giving them good statistical evidence to use for decision making.

When the two groups predicted the outcome of future games, the ideal group was much better at choosing the winner. Of course, in a lab setting, the ideal group never saw actual outcomes. But that was just a way to make sure that this method would train someone to make a better prediction. And it did work in this test.

In the real world, you’d simply have study the ideal or most likely outcome data. With practice, you should be trained to make a better prediction. The researchers believe that this type of training could be used effectively by weather forecasters, financial analysts, and doctors.

For the average person, this method may be used to make sports predictions, just like in the study. You rank the teams in order based on their number of wins. Then, before making your prediction for a future game, compile a list of “winners” of past games that are equal to the highest ranking team in each match up. If it helps, you could wait a day or two before studying the “ideal” list and making your prediction. The goal is to train yourself to make better predictions, so it may take some practice to get better at it, although there’s no guarantee, of course.

8Justifying Atrocities Changes Memories Of War

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According to a study from Princeton University, the memories of an entire people may be altered to justify atrocities committed by their side in a war. This includes overtly inhumane actions, like beatings and waterboarding. The researchers believe that people are motivated to remember information in a way that absolves them—or their side—from moral responsibility for their actions.

In this study, 72 European-Americans read four stories about soldiers committing wartime atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story contained justifications for a soldier’s actions. Two stories were about American soldiers; two were about Afghan soldiers. The study participants then watched a video retelling two of the four stories, but without justifications for the atrocities.

When tested, the participants were more likely to recall atrocities for both American and Afghan soldiers from the videos only. But more often, they remembered the rationalizations for the American soldiers only.

Even though the videos didn’t include justifications for atrocities, the participants selectively retrieved those memories for their side from the stories they had read. The researchers believe that it’s important to understand how politicians and journalists may influence public behavior, including how people vote, by justifying wartime atrocities.

7Educated Black Men May Be Remembered As Whiter

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As published in SAGE Open, an experiment gave college students quick subliminal exposure to either the word “ignorant” or the word “educated.” Then they saw a photo of a black man’s face. Later, these students were shown seven photographs of that same face: the original, plus three photos with lighter skin tones and three with darker skin tones. From the seven photos, the students were asked to choose the match to the original photo.

Of the two groups, the students who had been subliminally exposed to the word “educated” were much more likely to remember the black man as lighter in skin tone than he actually was.

This phenomenon is known as “skin tone memory bias.” It suggests that when expected stereotypes are shown to be wrong, a person’s memory compensates to protect his or her prejudice. So an intellectually successful black man may be remembered as whiter in skin tone than he really is. Instead of shattering a stereotype, this black man may be looked upon as an exception to the norm. It’s a way that memories twist information to protect cultural beliefs about race and intelligence even when those beliefs are clearly untrue.

6Painkillers May Prevent Marijuana-Related Memory Problems

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Marijuana’s value in treating medical conditions, from cancer pain to epilepsy, may be more than offset by its side effects, which are said to include learning and memory problems.

But researchers from Louisiana State University may have solved some of these problems. They discovered that the main active ingredient in marijuana, Delta-9-THC, increases levels of an enzyme called COX-2 in the hippocampus of mice. The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in memory and learning. The researchers found that drugs or genetic techniques that lowered the levels of COX-2 in mice prevented memory problems from Delta-9-THC. Their results suggest that ibuprofen, an over-the-counter pain medicine that inhibits COX-2, may prevent the memory and learning problems associated with marijuana use.

These researchers also believe that Delta-9-THC and a COX-2 inhibitor (to prevent side effects) may be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease. A more recent study from Stanford University Medical Center found that blocking endocannabinoids, which are the human brain’s “internal marijuana” chemicals, is linked to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But the Stanford researchers do warn that smoking marijuana won’t work to prevent Alzheimer’s.

5Walking Through Doorways Causes Memory Lapses

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It doesn’t matter if you’re going in or out, the simple act of passing through a doorway can make you forget something, according to a study from the University of Notre Dame. Called an “event boundary,” this simple act separates what happens in one room from what happens in another. That makes it difficult to remember what was decided or done in a different room because it’s filed away separately in your mind.

In both virtual and real-world settings, college students performed tasks such as choosing an item on one table and exchanging that item for another item on a different table. The tasks were performed three different ways: all in one room, moving through a doorway into a different room, and moving through a series of doorways leading back to the original room.

In each case, the students forgot more after they walked through a doorway, even if they ended up in the original room. This suggests that it isn’t the environment that affects memory as much as the act of passing through a doorway.

4Women Remember Men With Low-Pitched Voices

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According to researchers from the University of Aberdeen, a man who wants a woman to remember him and what he says should speak in a low-pitched voice. Women strongly prefer that kind of voice and remember objects better when they’re introduced to them by a man with a deep voice. The woman might then be more likely to rate the man as a potential mate.

But whether a person’s face will be remembered depends on how distinctive the facial features are. Psychologists at the University of Jena found that we’re more likely to remember unattractive faces than attractive faces if those attractive faces lack especially noticeable features, such as big eyes.

These results are surprising because, in general, we have more trouble remembering things we hear than things we see or touch. A study from the University of Iowa found that the brain processes sound differently than sight and touch. Those researchers believe that repeating sounds mentally may help you remember them. Or, if you’re a man speaking to a woman, you can always help her out by lowering the pitch of your voice.

3Love At First Sight May Be A Memory Trick

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Each time you retrieve a memory, it’s rewritten with current information to fit the reality of your present world. That’s why researchers from Northwestern University think that “love at first sight” is probably nothing more than a dirty memory trick. They believe that you’re projecting your current love for your partner back to the first time you met.

To test this, the researchers had people recall the location of objects on a computer screen. When the background was changed, the participants always chose the wrong location. In their next attempt, they again picked the same wrong location they had chosen the first time the background was changed. Their memories had adapted to the new information, even though it was wrong.

Many variations of this experiment have shown that memory becomes less accurate each time you retrieve it. In fact, it may eventually become completely false, which is why witness testimony in criminal trials is unreliable.

A different group of studies at Iowa State University showed that you can deliberately manipulate someone’s memory by introducing new information when that person recalls an event. But you only have a six-hour window after every time the memory is retrieved. Otherwise, that memory probably can’t be altered until the next time it’s retrieved.

2Even People With Exceptional Recall May Form False Memories

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Have you ever wished you could remember everything you’ve ever done? Some people can—it’s called highly superior autobiographic memory (HSAM), and people with HSAM can remember specific details of their daily activities—and the emotions they felt at the time—as far back as childhood. But people with HSAM are also vulnerable to memory distortions, they just don’t realize it.

One of these rare individuals, actress Marilu Henner, can remember the exact day she snagged her role on the TV show Taxi and where she was when she found out: a Grease premiere party on Sunday, June 4, 1978. In a 2012 interview with CBS News, Henner declared that her baptism is her earliest memory. “My godmother was a nun, and so she’d talk about my baptism all the time,” Henner said.

But that’s how a false memory may begin. When Henner’s godmother talked about the baptism, she may have inadvertently introduced false information as her own memory of the event changed over time. In turn, that may have altered Henner’s memory.

According to University of California researchers, HSAM individuals appear to have almost perfect autobiographical recall if there’s no misinformation to influence them. But otherwise, they’re just as vulnerable to false memories as the rest of us.

1Memories May Be Manipulated To Erase Fear

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A long-term memory is formed with the help of a consolidation process. When you remember that event, the memory becomes unstable until it’s reconsolidated—between the time when you retrieve the memory and when you tuck it away again, it can be influenced by your surroundings. Scientists hope to use that process to erase emotional memories from the brain.

At Uppsala University, researchers created fear memories in test subjects by giving them an electric shock while they looked at a neutral picture. One group reconsolidated the memory; the other didn’t. The researchers stopped the second group from reconsolidating the memory by disrupting the process with repeated viewings of the picture. The group that didn’t reconsolidate lost their fear of the picture.

Northwestern University researchers then tried to manipulate fear memories during sleep. Their subjects received mild electric shocks as they viewed two faces. While being shocked, they also smelled a different odorant, such as lemon or mint, to combine the face and odorant into a fear memory.

The participants were then presented with one of the odorants, but not the shock, while they slept. When they were awake, they were shown both faces again. They reacted with less fear to the face linked to the odorant they had smelled while asleep. The researchers believe these methods may calm, if not erase, fear memories in people with phobias, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder.