The Sins of Memory
I've been reading a book Mom Turner got out the library called "The Woman Who Can't Forget" written by a woman named Jill Price who has perfect autobiographical recall. While Jill's story about how her memory works is interesting, what has been extremely interesting to me so far is actually her commentary about how and why people forget things. She gives some paraphrasing from a book called "The Seven Sins of Memory" by Dr. Daniel Schacter, detailing seven types of inaccurate memory.
Here's a list of the seven "sins":
1.) "Transience": the normal loss of memory due simply to time. Most people begin to lose memory of events within hours of them happening and days later can often remember nothing of these small events at all.
2.) "Absentmindedness": forgetting where you put the car keys, why you walked into a room, adding baking powder to the recipe twice. Apparently, people who study brains and how they work have a theory that absentmindedness usually appears when the brain is busily at work on another issue and has "cleared the decks", so to speak, for that issue while dropping the processing of less important things. That explains why some really fantastically intelligent people I know can be almost comically absentminded.
3.) "Blocking": something's on the tip of your tongue but you just can't quite say it or you know you just thought of a good birthday present for your brother but now it's just not coming to mind. You know it'll come back to you at 3 AM, but for now it's a total blank.
Those three "sins" are called "sins of omission" in the book, meaning they're pretty much involuntary and happen because the brain is just working a particular way. The next four are called "sins of commission" because you are somewhat in control of making them happen.
4.) "Misattribution": you were positive you spoke to Grandma about going shopping while we were at Mom's birthday celebration last week, but really you talked to her about it while you were taking her to church a few days before; or you thought you already told your sister about accidentally shrinking her sweater in the dryer when really, you'd only told your mother. The innocent explanation for this is that it appears our brains do not store our memories all in one place. To reconstruct an event, we draw memory from different files in our brains and then piece them together to form a cohesive event. This can take up to 10 seconds and is pretty vulnerable to errors. We can call up different bits of memory and string them together in what seems to us a complete story even when it's all mixed up. This is one of many places it really pays to be humble, however: because when someone corrects the error, a humble person can then have the memory pieced back together properly while an arrogant person goes on with their totally wrong series of events and drives everyone around them bonkers.
5.) "Suggestibility": this is the creation of an outright false memory. Your brother is sure Dad didn't say we were supposed to paint today, so you remember the same thing; or you've heard a family story so many times you're positive you were there when you really weren't. Apparently, kids are especially susceptible to this, which is why you'll have children testifying in vivid detail about how their parents abused them when in reality, no such abuse occurred and none of the "facts" they're relating match up to any evidence. Actually, witness recall in general is often so unreliable due to suggestibility that there are studies showing how unhelpful they can be in accurately determining things that happened right in front of them. I seem to recall a comical episode in Adam 12 where the two officers interview witnesses to a crime and the descriptions are so wildly different that in the end they have to ignore all of it.
6.) "Bias": I agree with Jill Price that this is one of the most insidious of all memory problems, because it's actually a problem with being untruthful. There are several types of bias, but in the end they all come down to being truthful: you want to believe things were the same in the past as they are now, so you actually alter your own memories to fit your purposes. In a hindsight bias, for instance, you say, "That Mr. Wickham - I always mistrusted his appearance of goodness!" In change bias, you really think you've changed something in your life that your friends and relations know you haven't really changed at all - "My temper has really improved since I've been taking anger management classes"; it's interesting that with this bias, people will not only exaggerate how much they've changed, but how bad things were in the past. Consistency bias is where you want your thoughts and emotions to remain the same over time, so whatever they are now is (in your mind) what they've always been - you supported the Iraq war initially but now you don't, so you believe that you never did. My family had another name for this that isn't quite as nice as "bias" - we always called it "lying to yourself."
7.) "Persistence": this is where you allow one memory to haunt you in such out-of-proportion ways that it gradually consumes your thoughts and becomes a thing you dwell on. If you do this with some really terrible memories, it can actually cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder - there's a story in the book of a baseball player who made a bad pitch at a crucial moment and dwelt on in so much afterward that he went crazy and shot his wife and himself because he could not let it go. I think this might often arise from a lack of forgiveness, both for ourselves and other people.
As I'm reading this book, it's occurred to me that paying attention to how our memories work could be pretty beneficial for a couple of reasons: because being truthful with what we remember is one way we make decisions in the future; because being careful not to regard our memory as infallible is a good way to be a peacemaker; because memory is such a tricky and delicate thing that we need to not hold onto it so tightly that we totally lose track of what's actual going on right in front of us.
5/31/2012 11:44:21 am
That was very interesting reading. I have nothing to comment really, but wanted to let you know I read it. I will have to add that one to my list of books I want to check out.
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Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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