Why Our Memories Are So Bad

All of us misperceive, misremember, and even make up recollections, research reveals

Robert Roy Britt

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Image: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Without realizing it, human beings misperceive, misremember, and make up memories. These mental flubs, which can contribute to ideological polarization among friends and family, also explain how people offer up such rich detail in congressional or court testimony about an event that occurred weeks, months, or even years ago or how your favorite older relative vividly recalls childhood events. All such distant memories offer only the gist of what really happened at best, and at worst, they’re downright wrong.

“We don’t get any memory 100% right,” says Marianne Reddan, PhD, a researcher in psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University. “That’s actually a feature, not a bug.”

When a memory is recalled, it’s a bit like opening a computer file for editing. While neurons storing a particular memory are firing, the memory can be reinforced and solidified—or reimagined into something that doesn’t reflect reality.

“This is a beautiful thing,” Reddan told me. “If you learned dogs were dangerous because one bit you as a kid, you can, through this process of memory reconsolidation, ‘unlearn’ your fear of dogs and begin to develop happy relationships with adorable pups.”

Memory is not designed to record every detail forever, Reddan says. “Its purpose is to help you predict (and survive) the future.” But memory’s pliability opens it up to a host of potential errors, with consequences ranging from benign to tragic, from innocent lies to dangerously inaccurate beliefs about Covid-19 or other hot-button issues.

Here’s why recollections tend to go wrong, each of them often working in concert with others.

1. Encoding errors and misremembering

Memory starts with the encoding of observations or experiences, which means storing in our minds the perception of sights, sounds, smells, and other inputs. But everyone brings different experiences, expectations, and skills to that instant of perception explains Julian Matthews, a cognitive scientist at Monash University in Australia. How much we pay attention to an event, which aspects of it we pay attention…

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Robert Roy Britt

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB