The Myth Of Reliable Memory: Why It’s Notoriously Questionable

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Your memory is not as reliable as you think

I rely on my memory for many day-to-day routines. For other details, I do a double-check

So, before leaving for my 11 am client appointment, I checked the contents of my bag: Mobile – check, diary – check, paper and pen – check. All present and correct, Sar!

I arrived at my meeting room nice and early.

My client failed to show.

“Are you using the room today?” the receptionist at the facility asked, somewhat surprised.

“Yes.”

“I thought it was tomorrow, Friday.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s today”, I argued. “But I’ll just check my diary.”

Because I’d relied solely on my memory, I showed up a whole 24 hours early for a client appointment!

(Inner voice: Nice reframe Steph. Just admit you got the date wrong! And what’s the point of having a diary if you just take it out for trips and don’t look at it!?)

Doh!

We take our memory totally for granted. And why wouldn’t we? After all, it seems to work — most of the time, at least.

But how good is your memory? And should you count on its efficiency?

Everyday repetitive activities such as dressing yourself, making toast, cleaning your teeth, and having a shower rely on your memory. If this were not so, you would have to relearn everything. Every. Single. Day. How dire would that be? Your life would be like Groundhog Day — except you wouldn’t remember that you were repeatedly learning the skills you’d learned the previous day. And there wouldn’t be any groundhogs!

Groundhogs-memory and remember

Repetition helps to install information in your long-term memory

Knowing where you live, recognising your family and friends, knowing where you work, what you do, and who you do it with are critical functions of memory, gained from repetition.

Accurate memory for these everyday tasks frees you up to learn and create

But how reliable is your memory, really?

People are often adamant that what they see or experience is ‘the truth’.

They create an association with an event that is forever embedded in their mind. Yet memory itself is not as reliable as you might think.

First, let’s examine the word remember. In fact, let’s pull it apart!

A member is a part, an element, or a component of something. Such as a member of the audience. An arm, or a leg is a body member. To dis-member something means to pull it apart or disjoint it. To re-member means to put something back together.

And there is the clue

When you ‘re-member’ something, you essentially re-create or re-collect the elements of the experience in your mind. Each act of recreating the event changes it. So the original memory gets changed over time and according to how many times you’ve ‘re-membered’ it.

The content of your remembrance gets filtered

Your memory isn’t like a video camera. Your interests, beliefs, values, other memories, language, time, and space act as filters, producing a memory that fits more closely with your more recent experiences.

Here’s an example; I used to work with a group of electrical supply engineers in a mostly rural power company. Sometimes I’d go out to a job with one of them. They would usually drive.

While I would admire the views across the countryside, or pass comment on something, they completely obsessed over where the electrical transformers were located, the cable spans, and “who the hell put that #%$* pole up!”

They were almost completely oblivious to the things I was paying attention to, or even the road — which made me an extremely nervous passenger! To say we would have varied memories of those events would be an understatement!

Let’s just add another layer

You won’t remember every little detail of an event. It’s virtually impossible because in most situations there are literally millions of bits of information available for you to pay attention to (for example, the variety of colours, shades, shadows, sounds, etc.). If you tried to pay attention to them all, you’d go mad!

So what you see depends on your focus

And where you focus is quite selective. There’s an outstanding video example of selective attention in my post-NLP Map Of The World: Why What You See Is Fatally Flawed. The first video in that post will give you a firsthand experience of selective attention.

The video illustrates that when you pay attention to one activity, you won’t notice other critical information.

Have you ever been somewhere unfamiliar and got lost on the way home?

Man lost on isolated road

I used to struggle before Siri started giving me directions via my phone. To get home, you must not only memorize where you live in relation to where you’re going, but also how to get back home from your end location. If you don’t memorize the route, you’ll likely get lost.

You will still miss a lot of the information that’s available to you, simply because your intention is to find your way home — not to notice the lovely scenery along the way. So you’re more likely to observe key landmarks that remind you of where to go next, for example, ‘I must watch out for the blue house on the corner because that’s where I make a left turn.’

Repetition improves your memory

Once you’ve made the same trip a few times, however, your memory of how to get home becomes strengthened. At this point, you might begin to notice the scenery or features you hadn’t consciously observed before.

So how accurate is your memory?

By now, I hope you’re at least contemplating the accuracy of your own memory! You may have already realised that ‘Truth’ is personal and not universal. We all have our own ‘truth’.

If you’ve ever discussed events with family members or friends who shared the experience, you’ve probably come across the phenomena of each having distinctly diverse memories of the same event — and perhaps even arguing about who was ‘right’. Or maybe you remember an incident and your siblings have no recollection of it at all! I wonder how many arguments result from these re-constructed memories?

We all have our own memories

Even with shared experiences, each individual will have their own memories. And it’s really pointless arguing over which details are accurate. No-one is going to win an argument like that. Just agree that you’ve re-membered it in different ways.

What affects your ability to remember?

There are physical and emotional components to creating memories.

Emotional

The more emotion that is present in an experience, the easier it will be to remember it. Therefore, certain events, such as 9/11 can take us right back to what we were doing at that particular moment. In the same vein, auspicious events, which produce happy memories like getting married, a special birthday, or the birth of a child, are also long-lasting.

When we put ourselves back into contexts where we’ve experienced strong emotions, those memories often come flooding back, along with the emotions experienced in the initial event. Looking at a photograph can also anchor us back to the event.

Physical

Stress, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, or even feeling unwell can all defeat your attempts to retrieve that information that’s right on ‘the tip of your tongue’.

Speaking about your tongue, food and other substances will also affect your memory. Excess sugar, an unhealthy diet, alcohol, and drugs (prescription or otherwise) can all upset your thinking clarity, and thus your ability to retrieve memories accurately.

Key points to re-member about memory

  • Memory allows you to learn new stuff; you don’t have to keep re-learning what you already know.
  • Memory is prone to change the more you ‘re-member’ it.
  • Memory is personal, not universal.
  • It’s not really useful to argue about something based on your memories of it.

You can improve your memory by

  • Getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Meditating.
  • Repetition.
  • Mindfulness practices.
  • Drinking less alcohol.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Training your brain.

P.S. If you are wondering who the people are in the title photo, they are from left to right. My auntie Betty, auntie Dorothy, Mom, Nannie, Grandad, and Dad. The photo was taken at Barmouth in North West Wales, UK — as far as they can remember!

What’s your memory like?

Leave me a comment below and please share if you find this useful.

Tags: Learning and memory, Perception, Self-awareness

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