REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING
Memory is something that humans came to develop through natural selection, and while it is certainly extremely useful, it also has it’s flaws. Daniel Schacter (1999) who has spent his entire life studying memory, has outlined the ‘seven sins’ of memory:
- Transcience – the fact that memories fade.
- Absent-mindedness – the failure to remember something when attention is elsewhere.
- Misattribution – misremembering the source of a memory.
- Suggestibility – thinking we remember an event that someone actually implanted in our minds.
- Bias – distortions in the way we recall events that often tell the story in a way we would rather remember it.
- Persistence – memories we try to get rid of but can’t.
- Forgetting – the inability to remember.
Despite these flaws or weaknesses, memory is still a very powerful tool. Studies on long-term memory have found that information that has been consolidated through spacing over long intervals will last a lifetime, even if the information is not used for half a century. So even if you stopped speaking until the moment before you died, you would still remember how to produce your last words. Most times remembering something is like consulting an artist’s sketch rather thana photograph, as we are highly susceptible to altering or changing a memory either consciously or subconsciously. However, there are such memories that are highly resistant to forgetting and other forms of memory decay. These are called flashbulb memories, which are vivid, photographic memories of highly exciting or emotionally arousing events in one’s life. Why Do People Forget?
- Decay theory explains forgetting as a result of a fading memory trace. Much like a trail in a forest will overgrow with vegetation unless it is regularly walked on.
- Interference theory suggests that similar memories can intrude on each other and cause overlap. Just like a fork in a forest path can confuse someone as to which direction leads back to their campsite. Cognitive psychologists distinguish between two types of interference, proactive interference and reroactive.
- Proactive interference refers to the interference of previously stored memories with the retrieval of new information, as when a person calls a person calls a new romantic partner by the name of an old one.
- Retroactive interference is when new information interferes with retrieval of old information, for example when you have difficulty remembering phone numbers of houses you used to live in because you have learnt your new home number.
- Motivated forgetting is when forgetting is done for a reason. This can be implicit, like when you forget where you parked your car yesterday so you can remember where you parked today, or it can be explicit such as when you try to forget an unpleasant memory.
- Repression is when someone buries a traumatic memory in their unconscious mind so that it can no longer spring up in their waking state. The cost of repressing a memory often results in negative emotions and mental illnesses coming up in daily life instead, such as anxiety or depression.
- False memories are completely fabricated events made up by people, often they are created without the intention of being false, as the person usually believes the event to be true.
We have seen how distortion of memories can occur in the average person, however, specific kinds of distortion can also occur in the brains of people who have suffered illness or accidents, these are called disordered memories. The two main types of disordered memories are anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia involves the inability to retain new memories, usually from after the accident that caused the amnesia. Retrograde amnesia involves the inability to remember old memories from a period before the accident that caused the amnesia. Check Out Part 2 of Psychology 101 – Learning! Other guides in the Psychology 101 series: