Post No.: 0257
There are 3 stages to remembering information according to modern psychology. The first is perception and encoding – this is what we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and feel. This in itself is a selective process, as in from the start we can fail to encode or process detail or simply not notice something entirely at all, and if so then the information going in isn’t going to be accurate or complete at the first stage. The next is storage – we know we forget things over time, but we also revise our memories and rewrite them to fit in with our current/new ideas. And then there’s retrieval – where the brain searches out information. When you remember something, lots of different parts of the brain work together and from that emerges the mental representation that is going to be your experience of a retrieved memory. Every time you recall something, you reinterpret it all over again, and in every reconstruction process there are many opportunities for error.
‘Memory’ is thus a continuous process of reconstruction as a result of continuous changes to our neural pathways, in conjunction with the parallel processing of current and new information in our brains. This means that every time we retrieve a memory, it is potentially distorted by our current state of mind as opposed to being a perfectly unadulterated facsimile or video recording of the original experience.
So firstly, we only input/receive and encode a very small part of the world via our senses in the very first place, hence why we can easily miss something due to ‘inattentional blindness/deafness’ (which was first visited in Post No.: 0227). We actually miss many things in our everyday lives, even things literally right in front of our eyes. And because we miss them, we’re logically not aware that we’ve missed them, thus the perception and intuitive assumption we make is that we’ve not missed anything at all! Our attention is incredibly limited, our visual foveae are only very small areas on our retinas and we filter out a lot of what we hear in the environment otherwise it’d be overwhelming, even though the brain does a very clever job of filling in the gaps – with assumptions based on our internal models of the world – to make it seem like we’ve missed nothing at all. So never mind about the limitations of the storage and retrieval of our memories – we have no hope of storing and retrieving perfect memories if they’re not properly input in the first place.
And then our memories are not like video recordings with perfect pictures, sound, fidelity and detail – they are bathed in contexts, assumptions, prejudices, emotions and preconceptions. They’re metaphorically more like memories of memories, like photocopies of photocopies, where the fidelity can deteriorate or the memory can even change over time. Memories are also fragmentary and not linear, and we often fill in the gaps to try to make (artificially coherent) sense of events (e.g. ‘it was cold’ meant ‘it must’ve been winter’). The fragmentary information is only meaningful when reassembled and contextualised, but reassembly or recollection potentially introduces errors, which can lead to false memories and incomplete details.
Our memories are thus easily fallible. They can be corrupted and contaminated by our own present interpretations of an event. For example, if asked to try to paint an abstract painting from memory that you verbally interpreted as ‘a fan’ or as ‘spokes’, you’ll most probably paint in a ‘fan’ or ‘spokes’ even though the true visual form was something more abstract than that. (During one such lab experiment, participants were also given a paint colour that was not present in the original painting yet everyone felt obliged to include that colour in their recollections anyway – revealing that memories can even be planted, led or coerced.) Assumptions and priming can lead to (planted) false memories (e.g. if asked to memorise a themed set of words such as ‘bed, slumber, blanket, night time…’, some people will falsely ‘remember’ the associated word ‘sleep’ in that list even though it was not there).
It frequently happens – people who have apparently experienced the exact same event often dispute what really happened when reporting it afterwards. We can all be highly biased but no one needs to be an intentional liar to recall an event incorrectly.
We can remember that a video game looked graphically amazing at the time but then, after getting used to video games on newer consoles/computers, look at these old video games again and now they don’t seem as good as we remembered them. Our memories of those old video game experiences will now be reshaped by our present interpretations of them. This also illustrates how we adapt and get used to things, and how we can only know what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when compared relatively to something else; and if our reference point is something worse then it’ll look good, and if it’s better then it’ll look bad.
The brain is not organised like a neat filing system either – it’s metaphorically more like a fragmented hard drive with bits of information here, there and everywhere. Our memories aren’t stored in just one place in the brain, and they apparently move around the brain too (perhaps this is physical evidence of how memories can alter over time rather than are fixed like video recordings that we only ever press play on?) The brain doesn’t operate like a normal hard drive though but more like an ‘association machine’ that relies on making links between data – hence effective memory techniques exploit the power of associations (e.g. linking the PIN number ‘8431’ with the wacky image of a skunk with 8 paws, 4 stripes, 3 nipples and 1 exceptionally fluffy nose. Reminder to self to change bankcard PIN – woof!) The recall of information is more easily achieved via strong associated connections or links between one fragment of information with another, so you need to make two pieces of information relate to each other clearly. Novelty will also make it more unusual and memorable.
Our memories are key to our identity, but they are not like photographs even though they may feel like that (an illuminating test is to try to draw in perfect detail and colour a complete scene or face you apparently remember). A memory is a bunch of activated neurons in the brain that are fired together until they wire together, and so memories of the past are essentially these brain state patterns from a bygone time that we’re trying to resurrect at a later time. Depending on the strength and novelty of the wiring together, or the networked associations of a feeling or part of a memory with another – re-experiencing (and thus re-firing) one feeling or part of a memory can make us suddenly evoke other parts or things associated with that memory. For example, hearing a particular piece of music again may trigger the memory of hearing that piece of music before, plus how one felt, where one was, whom one was with and other salient details at the time too. Specific smells and the specific moments they are associated with make some of the strongest memories we hold.
The salient details might be there but the memory is rarely as detailed as one thinks (e.g. what were you wearing? What time or date was it exactly? Did the bartender have a beard?), especially over time as the memory starts to fade. Not re-firing those connections enough times will likely mean one will gradually start to lose the associated memory. They can also be modified or embellished until one’s memories are completely altered over time (e.g. new subsequent information can colour our memories, such as a good memory with a boy/girlfriend can turn into a bad memory if one subsequently acrimoniously splits up with him/her – one might start to now ‘remember’ the warning signs that were apparently present at the time). So the emotions or opinions we hold at the present can colour the memories of our past. Our memories of a specific event can potentially change over time but we won’t have a backup copy of the original in our brain to check it with (hence a real video recording of an event is invaluable whenever we want to provide evidence of something happening). Memories can therefore be very unreliable. Genuine memories aren’t perfect – in fact, the police are more suspicious of two accounts that sound too perfect in their correlation because this could indicate collusion!
As acts of reconstruction, we take bits and pieces of experiences, sometimes things that happened at different times and places even, and then construct our ‘recollections’ from them. We go through life, have experiences and may store pieces of information here and there, but later on other things can happen, such as circumstances change, you tell people about your experiences with possible embellishments or omissions, people talk to you about those same events and their details unconsciously become incorporated into your ‘memories’ of those events, you can be fed misinformation about the same events from others who were there or supposedly there, and these activities can transform or distort your memories so that when you now try to recall a past event, you’re reconstructing from a pool of fragmented and contaminated pieces that may contain lots of errors. Prior expectations and knowledge act as a reference point and distort how we accept, base and interpret any following information – hence worldviews can be reinforced via confirmation biases and thus are usually very hard to change.
Confidence in one’s memory is not a reliable indicator of an accurate memory because false memories can be expressed with a lot of confidence, detail and emotion too; and it can happen with and does happen with absolutely anybody, whether considered educated or not. Our memories are malleable and misinformation can be constantly streaming from the media, the opinions of other people or from absolutely anywhere. What we remember is shaped by the sum of our experiences to the present day, not just the specific experience we’re trying to remember.
And such false memories can even be deliberately planted by others. For instance, by leading or assumptive questions, such as one of your parents confidently saying, “Do you remember, when young, the time you were lost in a shopping mall and a kind elderly person helped reunite you with us?” The event seems plausible so you may start to think, visualise and inadvertently fabricate this ‘memory’ in your mind, and furthermore over time embellish the story with more details and of things that ‘must’ve happened’, until maybe after about a week you’ll feel that you definitely remember that event now, but what you’ll remember is the memory of the imagination. So leading questions can distort a recollection and contaminate a memory, and depending on how much we embrace a false memory, we can unwittingly weave fantasy into the very narrative of who we are.
In summary, our memories of the past are present reconstructions of fragmentary and partly inaccurate details, as opposed to faithful records – some of those details came firsthand from the event, some details came from things that other people told you, some details were filled in by what you think must’ve happened, and other details are coloured by present emotions or feelings. Our personal life story is therefore partly a mythology, and is always constantly evolving.
We often record the things we do with real video recorders, but these events are likely to be personally salient events otherwise we wouldn’t have been bothered to record them – and personally salient events are already more likely to be remembered in more detail and accuracy due to the attention we give them and their emotional content. Still, we’re often surprised when we look at old photographs or video recordings we haven’t seen in a while and think ‘did I really look like that?!’