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10 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Memory

by Gregory Myers
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Our memory is something that we rely on every day for every single thing we do. Without it, we would not be able to remember how to walk, how to eat, or even our own name. Our past would be a total mystery and, without the context of our past, we would walk through life confused with no idea what was going on. While our memory is one of the most important things we use every day, it is also something we constantly take for granted. There are many misconceptions about the way memory works, and it often fools us in subtle ways.

10Our Memories Make Up Who We Are

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Many people are under the impression that memories are static or at least fairly stable. This is an understandable misconception because for the longest time many researchers in the field of learning and memory were under the same impression. Research in the last decade, especially research by a neuroscientist named Karim Nader, has proved that our memory is not nearly as stable as we once believed. The common wisdom was that once something was consolidated—or encoded into long-term memory—that it couldn’t be altered when recalled again. The belief held by most was that if you did want to alter a memory, you needed to do it early in the encoding process, before consolidation was fully completed.

However, Nader’s research and experiments have since shown that this is not true at all. While he was intrigued by memory from a young age, it was the memories of 9/11 that led him to start thinking about how we can alter our past memories. He refers to these “flashbulb” memories of important events and how many people remembered seeing the first plane hit the World Trade Center on television on September 11, even though that footage was not shown until the next day. It made him wonder if people were recalling memories and then subtly altering them each time.

His research showed that when we recall something there is another level of memorizing as we recall it—a sort of reconsolidation of the memory. In other words, we can subtly alter our memories based on how we want or need to see the world today, and it also helps us put everything in our lives into proper context. This means rather than our current self being based on past memories, we often alter our memories to better mesh with how we think things should be and how we view ourselves.

9I Just Need To Memorize It

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By far, the most common method of learning things in school is still rote memorization. You either write or recite a phrase, a set of mathematical formulas, or what have you over and over until you remember them. For many learners and many teachers this is still the most common way to memorize anything, but it is actually horrendously inefficient and ineffective. Of course, memorizing something by rote can indeed encode it effectively into your permanent memory, but by robbing it of context, it makes recall and proper memorization much more difficult.

Many people will hit exam time and may have memorized what they needed to know, and it truly does exist in their brains’ long-term storage, but they don’t have the proper means to recall it. The reason for this is all about the context. If the student was memorizing by rote and not relating it to other class material or using any memory tricks to improve later recall, they may be unable to find the proper context in which to recall the memory later.

For this reason, there is some controversy in education over teaching people to memorize things versus teaching them to think critically and relate information. Unfortunately, the controversy misses the real point: It’s not necessarily about memorization, but how you remember. If you can remember something based on its relationship with other things in the same class and how they affect each other, you will do much better on recall when the time comes. There are also many mnemonic techniques that can be used to create context clues for better memory recall.

8It Will Come Back To Me

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If you’ve ever had a really great idea or thought of something important and then immediately forgotten it, you might have struggled for a while and then said “it will come back to me later” and moved on for awhile. Unfortunately, much of the time that memory is simply never coming back. The misconception here lies in how memory works. For anything to end up in long-term memory, it has to go through an encoding process first, and this takes time. The longer the process, and the more effort and context goes into it, the stronger the memory. What this means is that if you just now learned something, or thought of it for the first time, then your mind is going to need some time—and effort on your part—to actually encode that memory into long-term storage.

If the memory you expect will come back to you is something that you have thought of before—it was already in your long-term memory—then it probably will come back to you eventually, with the caveat that if you don’t know the context clues, it might appear again at a random time that doesn’t make any sense when it is inconvenient for you to recode the context in which you remember it. If the thought you hope will come back to you is truly new and you almost immediately forget, the unfortunate truth is that it is probably never going to return. The memory is likely lost forever because it never was actually a memory.

7The Validity Of Eyewitness Testimony

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In recent years, psychologists have cautioned courts and jurors to start taking eyewitness testimony with about 1,000 grains of salt. The reason for this is because, as a general rule, eyewitness testimony cannot be relied on as a sole valid way to decide guilt. For example, the Innocence Project, a group that uses DNA testing to help exonerate people who are wrongly convicted of murders, has been tracking how wrongful convictions end up happening in the first place. In well over 200 cases of people who were falsely convicted, nearly three-quarters of the people ended up in jail due to faulty eyewitness testimony. If that wasn’t bad enough, a good portion of these cases actually involved multiple eyewitness accounts.

As we mentioned earlier, it doesn’t take much for us to alter our past memories, and it doesn’t take much for an eyewitness to do so either. While their initial recall could be correct, given time between the events and questions by police or prosecutors, it’s very easy for people to end up with an honest but completely warped version of the events that actually happened. This can sometimes cause things to become very muddled in a court of law.

In the 2014 grand jury that convened to discuss whether Darren Wilson should be indicted, there were a multitude of witnesses, and no one really had the exact same story as the others. Because of how we alter our memories based on our own perceptions, we can end up with dozens of witnesses who all are absolutely convinced that they saw something different happen. This makes eyewitness testimony fairly suspect, and for this reason it is often relied on less and less in court.

6Remembering Dreams

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Dreams are something that science is still struggling to fully understand. In fact, one thing that scientists cannot really agree on to this day is why we dream. There are many theories on the subject, but not a single one is conclusively proven or accepted by the scientific community. As you might imagine, since we still lack a lot of knowledge about dreams, it stands to reason that we are still trying to understand why we sometimes recall our dreams and why we often do not. While some people are under the impression that they remember dreams better if they are in a really deep sleep, it turns out the opposite is true.

Researchers were interested in the fact that some people tend to recall a lot of dreams and others hardly ever do. What they found was that people who tend to recall dreams a lot have higher blood flow in certain parts of the brain associated with increased mental activity while they are snoozing.

It turns out that the brain cannot actually encode new information into long-term storage while you are fully asleep. What they believe is that those who are regular dreamers are actually waking up momentarily without realizing it—due to stimuli around them—which allows their now somewhat awake brain to encode parts of the dream into long-term storage. This would explain why even those who recall dreams often only remember brief and sometimes vague snatches as your brain only has a few moments of wakefulness to turn the memory into something permanent.

5Eidetic Imagery

One of the most common and enduring myths about memory is that some people have what is known as a photographic memory. In other words, everything they have ever seen they can replay in their head like a movie or look at like photos in a slideshow with perfect accuracy. According to science, there is no person alive with any such ability and there never has been—the phenomenon simply does not exist. Even those who have extremely good memory and can recall images from the past with startling accuracy still omit or change details. They may have a very detailed memory, perhaps better than most, but their memory is certainly not photographic.

However, there is another phenomenon related to photographic memory known as eidetic imagery that is sometimes confused with the other. This alleged phenomenon contends that some people—called eidetikers—can look at an image and then, when it is moved away, still see the image in front of them in perfect detail. According to those who believe in this ability, it differs from an after image and tends to be insanely detailed, although not necessarily completely accurate. The research data on the subject is scarce and not everyone is convinced the phenomenon is even real.

Nearly all of the modern studies on the matter were performed by the Habers, a married pair of researchers who were searching for proof of eidetic imagery. Unfortunately for those who subscribe to the theory, in their own monograph they admit frustration with their own methods stating they have been unable to come up with good enough objective tests for the matter in the first place and they also admit the failings of their own experiments.

To make matters worse, others who have tried to replicate their experiments, and even create new ones in order to objectively test for it, have met with the same frustration and criticized the research methods of the Habers. If that wasn’t enough, the Habers consistently claimed that eidetic imagery was only seen in children and that it faded with age, but others who studied it saw the claims of the phenomenon in experiments actually increase in children as they got older.

4Negative Memories

Some people are under the impression that a positive memory is going to be much stronger than a negative one. After all, it makes perfect sense that we would want to remember the good things that happen to us and forget the bad. However, while there are indeed people out there who tend to focus more on pleasant memories, they are vastly in the minority. It turns out that negative memories tend to stick out in our minds more than positive ones. This may not seem to make sense on the surface, but there is a perfectly logical explanation. When you are happy and content there really isn’t much for your brain to do. On an evolutionary level, you only need to think when you need to get something or to deal with a bad situation. When you are happy you tend to relax more and don’t need to involve as many higher processes of the brain.

However, dealing with negative situations requires a great deal more thought according to psychologists. What this means is that we tend to place more importance on negative situations. Researchers have consistently found that people tend to be twice as bothered by negative situations as they are happy about positive ones. They also remember better after they have just dealt with a negative situation. While this may seem fairly grim, some experts have suggested that if we use our knowledge of this consciously, we can better temper our emotions so we aren’t as badly affected by negativity and are more affected by positivity.

3Forgetting During Hypnosis

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There are two main kinds of hypnosis. One is used for show on a stage and the other more serious version is used in a therapist’s office. When it comes to the former, many people are familiar with the popular trope of a comedian type who holds up some object and makes the person focus on it after pulling them “randomly” from the audience and then recites some sort of mantra like “you are getting sleepy.” Before long, the person in question is in a deep hypnotic trance and starts performing all manner of crazy antics on stage to the delight of the crowd. Afterward, the subject will claim to remember nothing from the event, and this has led to the misconception that post-hypnotic amnesia (forgetting what you did under hypnosis) is something that happens automatically as part of the process.

The truth is that stage shows use a lot of tricks, and they often plant people in the audience. However, when they are performing real hypnosis, they are expertly pulling the most suggestible people out of the audience. The reason for this is because hypnosis cannot actually make someone do something they do not wish to do, so they need a cooperative subject. Forgetting what you did upon waking from hypnosis only occurs if the instructions are explicitly given. Furthermore, as you will not do something under hypnosis that you do not wish to do, you will only forget what happened if you actually want to—no hypnotist under the sun can force you to forget anything.

2We Know Where Our Memories Come From

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While we have mentioned previously that we cannot really be sure of the accuracy of our memories, most people would still say they have a firm grasp on where they were when they first remembered something, where they learned it, and who or what they learned it from. However, the truth is that we can just as easily mix that up as well. There is actually a specific term for this in psychological literature called “source confusion.” You may have had a situation where you told someone something and were then informed that they were the person who told you about it in the first place. If this happened, you probably remember being confused and maybe even arguing with your friend about where you did indeed first hear the information in question.

This can lead to more than just confusion about where the memory came from. This confusion of the source of our memories can muddle our thinking enough that it can easily lead to the unconscious formation of completely, or mostly, false memories. The reason false memories can form due to this memory error is because, without the proper context of the original source to ground our recall in, later remembrance of the event can start to change the details, especially if we hear something about what we are recalling from yet another source. As we continue to go over the event, we continue to have chances to change it even further and may continue to do so subconsciously. The stronger and more accurate the original memory, the better chance you have of preserving it as intact as possible upon further recollection.

1Our Memory Knows The Difference Between Fantasy And Reality

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As we have mentioned before, despite how sure people are of their own recollections much of the time, it is actually very easy to implant false memories in people. And, as we have also mentioned in this article, it’s fairly easy for us to accidentally alter our memories and end up with very confused memories of what we did, or did not, actually do. Of course, implanted memories have really only been studied in a limited research setting, where ethics would forbid trying to implant the type of memory that someone might be more likely to reject—experiments tend to stick with silly childhood memories of no real consequence. And, of course, while we may alter our memories, most of us are pretty sure that the memories we contain of our lives are things that indeed actually happened.

Unfortunately, we have the capability to accidentally create utterly false memories within our own minds without any outside involvement. This phenomenon is called “imagination inflation” by researchers and is based in part on Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on false memories. What they found is that simply by imagining an event, people were more likely to think that it had actually happened to them. The caveat here is that these experiments were all based on imagining childhood memories. Some experts believe that it is easy for imagination inflation to occur with childhood memories because, due to our limited development at the time, it is easy for us to become a victim of the source confusion phenomenon that we mentioned earlier.

However, there are also some contradictions in the studies. One study found people were less likely to make this memory error if the event was something easily believable, and another found the exact opposite. The researchers involved have also been confused by some of the results because they expected that giving people advance warning of what was happening would lower the potency of the effect, but it actually either had no effect at all, or did the opposite—showing us that memory is something we still have much to learn about.

fact checked by Jamie Frater