Can We Rely On Our Memories?


First published on by Marina Zayats

The proud moment of winning first place in a competition, the dispute with a colleague, the last night out with your friends…we all have memories, whether they are pleasant, disturbing or neutral, whether they happened one day or 10 years ago. Some of them are remembered in vivid, bright colors and in detail, others are almost forgotten, literally erased from our memory as time passes.

Past events are unchangeable and so some tend to think that our memories of the past are fixed, except the fact that we forget a few details the more time passes. 63% of people hold the belief that our memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we experience. However, that’s not the way our brain works when storing and retrieving memories. Actually, our memories of past events, let it be a daily happening or a big lifechanging experience, don’t stay the same. To understand how our brain builds and recalls memories we have to take a look at how information is stored in our memory in the first place.

We have three types of memories: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Our sensory memory stores sensory information, e.g. a sound in the street; its duration ranges only from one to a few seconds. When this sensory impulse attracts our attention, it passes through an attentional gate and is transferred to our short-term memory. Short-term memory allows recall for a period of several seconds to a minute without rehearsal and has a limited capacity, so it doesn’t hold very much information at a time. In order to be stored in our long-term memory this information has to be repeatedly rehearsed. Long-term memory stores information relatively permanently and has an unlimited capacity.

As shown by the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett (1932), who performed the most influential experiments on memory distortion, people usually organize their memories within the historical and cultural framework, which Bartlett named “schemata” of the individual. Consequently we recall past happenings in a way that makes sense to our present situation and is consistent with our current beliefs and expectations. Many other experiments affirm Bartlett’s theory and in one of these experiments, people were asked to look at a description of a home. One group was instructed to take the viewpoint of a home buyer while the other group was asked take the viewpoint of a housebreaker. Evaluation proved that the two different perspectives had an impact on what was remembered: “home buyers” remembered a leaky roof, while people from the group housebreakers rather remembered the expensive coin collection (Anderson and Pichert, 1978).

This experiment, among many others, show that the participants’ memory is affected by their perception and knowledge of the world. Take the following ad by Oliviero Toscani created for Benneton in 1989. What do you see and what would you remember? The ad was seen as huge provocation by people, especially in the U.S., who claimed it was racist, even though the company has a reputation for promoting racial tolerance. People interpreted it to depict a black man who had been arrested by a white man due to people’s prior assumptions distorting the ad’s meaning. Is this what the picture really shows?

Handcuffed for Benetton. (Photo Credit: Oliviero Toscani/Flickr)

The idea about how our memory might work came to Bartlett while playing Chinese Whispers; a game in which a story is passed on through a chain of people. An easy task as one might think, whereby the initial story told by the first person should remain the same when renarrated by the last person in the chain, except for the often observed fact that it is not. The players often leave out information they regard as irrelevant, highlight points they consider to be important and rationalize the parts that do not make sense. Therefore, the final version of the story may be very different from the initial one because the process of remembering includes the retrieval of information, which has been unwittingly altered, so that it is accordable with our present knowledge. In other words, memory is reconstructive rather that reproductive. As our knowledge and our beliefs can change in the course of time, so can our memory.

Another, rather disturbing, finding by psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus from Washington University is that memories can even be implanted to a certain extent. In one of her studies she prepared a booklet for each participant with short stories about three events that had actually happened to him or her and one that had not. The false event was constructed as a shopping trip where the participant got lost at about the age of five over a longer period of time in a shopping mall, while a relative also verified that the participant had not in fact been lost as a child. In the end, one third of the participants remembered the false event that never happened to them. How did this happen? Loftus explains that fake memories are built by combining your own memories with information received from others; while sometimes forgetting the source of the information during this process. The memories of others become your own. The study provides evidence that people can be manipulated to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be pushed into “remembering” certain events that never took place.

As we see from these studies, our memory is more complex than we think. Exposed to manipulation, change and our current beliefs and expectations, our memories are as individual as we ourselves. Up until now,  it seems like we keep actively reconstructing our memories as our knowledge of the world around us changes constantly. Therefore it might be necessary to ask yourself where your beliefs and knowledge comes from in order to understand what affects your memory.

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