Our Faulty Memory

If you ask people about their ability to remember things most will tell you they have a terrible memory.  All the evidence and psychological testing certainly seems to show that we do not do a very good job of remembering events that we witness or experience in life.  This failure to accurately remember is due to one or more of three processes that are involved in remembering and recalling an event, encoding, storing, and retrieving.  When we witness an event the information we receive from our senses is consolidated into a single link to our memory of the event.  After the event we think about it in a single term such as “my 18th” birthday party.  From this single link all remembered information about the event is placed into our working memory and from here we think about the details we have retained about the event.  For example, we can think about who attended, the cake, the candles, the gifts, and any other details we have stored away in our memory.

Typically, we do not tell ourselves that we need to pay attention to what is going on around us because we may want to recall the event later.  Hence, the information that we pay attention to vary and this determines to some extent what we are able to recall later on.  At best the information we encode into our memory banks is sketchy.  We rarely store away all of the details of an event, and this can cause problems later on.  If you want to test this idea do this:  With the help of another person, walk into any room of your home with your eyes closed.  Open your eyes for 2-3 seconds and take in all the things you see before you and then close your eyes again.  With your eyes closed, immediately begin telling the person with you all of the items you saw in the room.  You will do two things:  1.  You will not recall everything you saw, and 2.  You will add things that are not there.  You can lengthen the amount of viewing time and you might be able to recall more items, but you will never recall everything you saw.  However, if you were to wait a day and then try to recall everything you saw I could guarantee you that you will forget quite a bit and will again add items that were not there. 

Encoding is the process that takes in information from our senses and prepares it for storage into our long-term memory.  The executor in our minds decides what is to be kept and what will be discarded.  As a general rule, we retain those bits of information that are important to us and/or have meaning in our lives.  The problem with encoding is that it is limited to those things we pay attention to, and we can only pay attention to very few items at a time.  Encoding is also limited to the amount of information we can store in our short-term memory and research suggests we can only store about four items at a time.  It is because of these limitations that our memory of past events ends up being quite sketchy. 

Storing is the next process that takes place when remembering information.  Once the executor has decided what is to be stored away in our long-term memory, our brain consolidates the information and develops traces, or paths, to where the information is stored.  Along with the location of the information, certain cues that point to this location are also developed.  Cues are hints that we use later on to recall the information.  An example of a cue might be the word “birthday.”  You hear the word birthday, and this cue then points to your birthdays that you can remember.  From here, if you wanted to talk about your birthdays, you would select a particular birthday to discuss. 

One school of thought in modern psychology suggests that the reason we do so poorly when recalling events is that we do not do a very good job of providing cues.  As a result of research on this topic, police officers talking to witnesses of crimes or accidents have learned to provide many possible cues to the witnesses that help them recall the witnessed event.  For example, a policeman investigating an automobile accident might ask a witness to tell him where they were standing when the accident occurred.  They may ask what they were thinking about moments prior to seeing the accident.  They may also ask the witness to describe what they would have seen if they were on the other side of the street, or if they were a bird flying overheard.  Having the witness think about the details of what was going on around them at the time of the accident provides the witness with many cues that can then point to accurate information about the accident. 

The final process involved in remembering an event is retrieval.  This involves using the cues we have available to us and bringing the stored information into our working memory.  In the case of recalling your 18th birthday a single cue is initially needed, for example the word “birthday.”  From here the executor searches our memory for as much information as is needed to relate the story of your birthday.  Additional cues will bring to mind more of the details we have stored away.  More often than not, one recalled detail can act as a cue to more details and the process continues until everything you want to remember about the event is brought to mind. 

At best, our recollection of an event is like a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing.  In the encoding, storing, or retrieving processes information is simply not available or cues are not provided for.  However, we seem to have a need to provide whole or complete memories of past events.  We have a need to fill in the missing pieces, and we do this, most of the time, without realizing what we are doing.  One theory suggests that we develop this need for wholeness from a very early age and practice it until we become quite proficient. 

An example of this theory can be illustrated by drawing a circle on a piece of paper out of a dashed line (with gaps in the circle).  If you ask someone what they see a vast majority will say they see a circle.  In truth what they are seeing is a dashed line rolled up in a circular manner, not a circle.  Circles have no beginning and no end, and certainly do not have gaps in the line.  The same thing will happen if we draw a triangle out of a dashed line.  Most people will say they see a triangle, when in fact they are seeing a dashed line in the shape of a triangle, not a triangle.  From this illustration we can easily see how it is that we desire to see things as whole, complete objects. In the case of the circle and the triangle, our minds seem to automatically fill in the gaps so that we have complete circles and triangles.  The same phenomenon occurs in our memory. 

Let’s take the scenario that follows to show this phenomenon.  A couple is planning to go out for dinner.  The man turns to the woman and says, “Wear that red dress you wore the last time we went out.”  The woman replies, “I didn’t wear a red dress, it was a blue dress.”  In this situation one of them is wrong about the color of the dress.  What has happened?  Let’s suppose she did indeed wear a blue dress.  Why did the man think she wore a red dress?  Apparently his memory of the last dinner date is in error. 

There are a couple of possible reasons for this error in his memory.  The memory of the event developed this error in one of the three processes involved in memory, encoding, storing, or retrieving.  Regardless of which process produced the error, what has happened is that in recalling the event, the color of the dress the woman wore either wasn’t available or a sufficient cue was not provided.  Not being able to accurately recall the color of the dress, the executor in the man’s mind filled in that portion of his memory with the red dress.  It is conceivable that if asked, the man might honestly say that he could not remember the color, even if he was not willing to admit it at the time of recall.  Because of this compelling desire for wholeness, the red dress was plugged into his memory to fill the missing information, thereby creating a false memory.  For the most part, these types of errors in memory are not problematic.  Research has found that people, when recalling events, plug plausible information into their memories and will defend their false memories with much fervor.

A great deal of research has been conducted in this area of memory and as a result the reliability of eyewitnesses has been brought into much dispute. Imagine a witness in a murder case filling in gaps.  You can easily see the problem here.  Our court systems have come to view eyewitness accounts of events with much skepticism.  We now know from research that when faced with recalling an event we will plug into our memories any information that might make sense, or seem plausible.  In most instances this is not cause for concern.  However, we can easily think of instances where accurate information is required and this process of plugging in false information can have serious results.

Why bring this discussion of our faulty memories into a self-help book?  Because it is important to understand that our memory of past events and subsequently our perception of these events is more often than not in error.  From our early years, we tend to model our own actions after those we have witnessed in our youth.  When we take into account the fact that our memory of these past events is filled with gaps that we tend to fill up with false information, you can easily understand how it is that the actions of our models that we remember may not have actually happened as we remember them.  In simple terms, we are modeling our behavior based on falsely recalled models.  The child observing the relationship between his parents surely is not mature enough to understand fully what he is witnessing.  Later in life, what he recalls of their relationship is missing pieces of information that he fills in for himself.  This quite often can lead to poor behavior on our parts, as we are modeling our behavior on information that is not real, or at best has been misperceived. 

Can we do anything to prevent these misperceptions?  It is doubtful that we can teach our children to do a better job of witnessing the world around them in order to build more accurate memories.  For us, it is important that we realize the likelihood that what we remember may not be as accurate as we would like for it to be.  Armed with this knowledge, we can now understand our past much better, or at least have healthy doubts about our memory of it and go from there.

Also, now that we have a better understanding of our memory and how it works, it should be an easy step to do a better job of remembering events in our future.  We can now go through life paying more attention to those important events that take place, and provide ourselves with better cues when recalling events. 

There is one more aspect of our memory that needs mentioning here.  It is important for us to understand that we need to trust the information our senses bring to us.  As I said earlier, unless our senses are physically impaired, the information they bring to us is 100% accurate and free of human emotion.  If you can learn to view this information without attaching your emotions to it, you will be able to view the reality of what lies before you from a better perspective, a realistic one.