Memory plays such a pervasive and fundamental role in our lives that we often neglect its importance. We forget her just as we forget our health and we only remember her presence when she fails us or plays a trick on us.
When we forget something important or realize that one of our memories is not accurate, we see the importance of memory in our daily “chores”. After all, thanks to memory we can do things as simple as remembering the names of the people in the environment and their telephone numbers, learning the skills necessary to do all kinds of tasks or remembering the passwords to our accounts and cards between others.
If you have ever seen yourself in any of the above situations or in other similar ones, you already know how frustrating a situation in which your memory has failed you is.
The seven “sins” of memory
In the book The Seven Sins of Memory, the psychologist and memory expert Daniel L. Schacter identifies the seven “sins” of memory: transience or transience, distraction or absence of psychological awareness, blockage, misattribution, suggestibility, prejudice or partiality and persistence.
Schacter describes the first three as sins of omission, since the result is a failure to remember an idea, fact, or event. The result is that memory is lost.
Schacter regards the remaining four as sins of commission. This means that there is a form of memory present, but not with the desired fidelity or the desired fact, event or idea. That is, part of the memory is there, but the result is wrong or not the desired one.
Transience: how memories fade over time
Sure you are able to perfectly remember what you ate yesterday, you may even be able to remember what you ate before yesterday, the day before and several days more. But if you are asked to remember what you ate three or four weeks ago, the chances that you will remember it faithfully are slim.
This is because short-term memories tend to get lost. While a person may be able to remember some important events due to the impact they have created on him, memories of trivial things disappear quite quickly.
But what about the important experiences? The truth is that long-term memories also tend to fade over time. Even the most important details of memorable memories tend to fade over time.
This tendency for memories to fade is a basic feature of memory. But behind this transitory or fleeting memory are also many of our problems to remember. In this sense, the gradual fading of memories can make it difficult to even remember some important details.
The absence of psychological awareness: the power of distraction
Schacter suggests that the absence of psychological awareness occurs when there is a problem between attention and memory. They occur when we become distracted or overwhelmed to the point of not being able to notice important information and memorize it.
Unlike transience, these errors do not occur because memory fades over time, but because the information is not encoded in memory in the first place.
Most of us are very familiar with distraction: forgotten keys before leaving home, an important document or object that we have not brought to work or class, etc. But why are we so forgetful and distracted?
Schacter suggests that distractions occur because we spend so much of our lives on autopilot, performing daily tasks without thinking about them.
In most cases, this distraction causes only minor discomfort, but sometimes the effects can be much more severe. A distraction behind the wheel, walking down the street inattentive, or being distracted while cooking, to name a few, can lead to situations that can have tragic consequences.
The Blockade: Trying to Remember the Things We Know We Know
” I have it on the tip of my tongue.” Does it sound familiar to you? You know you know something, but you are not able to retrieve the data. The more you think about it, the more difficult it seems to find the answer and, without coming to mind, you remember it a while later. Research shows that people are able to recover half of their blocked memories within a few minutes of blocking.
The blockage occurs when the brain tries to retrieve or encode information, but another memory interferes, causing a temporary inaccessibility to the stored information. In many cases, the barrier is a memory similar to what one is looking for, which can make the wrong come back. This is a common situation for simple things like names, titles, places, and the like.
Scientists believe that memory blocks become more common with age and are responsible for the discomfort that older people experience when they cannot remember other people’s names.
Misattributions: confusing the origin of a memory
Misattributions mean that information comes from one source when it actually comes from another place. In many cases, these misattributions may be relatively minor or unimportant, but in certain situations, confusing the source of information can have significant consequences.
A type of erroneous attribution occurs when something is remembered only partially without precision, missing some detail. Another type of misattribution occurs when you believe that a thought you had was entirely your own and original, when in reality it is something that has been read or heard before.
Misattribution also becomes more common with age. As we get older we retain less detail each month in the acquisition of information. This is due to problems achieving better concentration or processing information quickly. In addition, as as we age our memories also become more distant, old memories become especially prone to misattribution.
Suggestibility: external influences can trigger false memories
Suggestibility is the vulnerability of our memory to the power of suggestion. Schacter suggests that suggestion is possibly the most dangerous memory error of all. Research on false memories has shown that we are susceptible to suggestion and that suggestion can lead us to believe in memories of things that never happened or are not true.
Research has shown that we are susceptible to suggestion and the formation of false memories. In addition, it has been proven that the confidence with which we believe that a memory is true does not have a strong association with how true or false this memory can really be.
The work of Elizabeth Loftus, who has been studying and writing about false memories since the mid-1970s, clearly demonstrates how easy it is to implant false elements into essentially real memories.
He conducted a study with two groups formed randomly. The two groups watched the same video in which two cars collided, later one group was asked about “the crash” and another about “the moment the cars crashed.” Thus, 14% of those who were asked about the crash saw broken glass, while 32% of those who were asked about how cars crashed recalled seeing broken glass. In neither case were there any.
Prejudices or partiality: how our current beliefs influence our memories
Beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about today’s world, together with our knowledge, can have a great influence on the way we remember. By looking back, we can “edit” these memories, often unconsciously, to reflect the view we have of ourselves today.
For example, we have a tendency to want things to be consistent, including our beliefs about ourselves. The problem is that by looking back at our memory, we may find that the things we believe now are not necessarily in accordance with the things we have done in the past.
This need for consistency in our beliefs and actions can lead to the mental rewriting of our own memories so that they better fit our current state of mind.
Persistence: remembering what we would like to forget
Not everything in our memory is good memory. In fact, we would like to be able to forget many of the things we remember because their evocation causes us discomfort and reopens emotional wounds. But those memories are still there, they persist despite the years.
Sometimes we are haunted by memories that we would like to forget, but cannot. The persistence of memories inhabited by traumatic events, negative feelings, and experienced fears represent another memory problem. Some of these memories accurately reflect dire events, while others may be negative distortions of reality.
In many cases, this persistence of unwanted memories translates into mild annoyance or regret. But, there are other recourse that acquire an invasive character, such as accidents, assaults, robberies, natural disasters and other traumatic events, which can lead to depression, flashbacks, rumination or post-traumatic stress disorder, consequences that can be disabling or even life threatening.