Memories: How Your Memories Can Trick You – and What To Do About It…

How Your Memories Can Trick You

Do you remember where you were on 9/11?


Of course you do.

Well, research has used that very example to demonstrate how memories work and how they can deceive us (i.e. how your memories can change!)

Researchers (1) asked people to recall their memories of the 9/11 events at regular intervals, making note every time of what was said (where they were, who they were with, what they were wearing, the facts about the events itself…).

They noticed that over time, details were changed without people even realizing it.

After a while, it turned out that many people thought they were somewhere that day when it fact they were somewhere else. Yet, they were convinced their memories were accurate.

Why?

Because every time you retrieve a memory, replay it in your mind or retell it to someone then store it back again, you have the potential to alter it.

It’s almost as though your mind recreates that memory rather than just putting it back as it was where it was.

The worst part of it is that you will believe in the alteration as though it did happen. The alteration will become your new reality within this memory.

When The Knowledge Of Memory Alteration Becomes Useful

When I learned about that, I found it quite scary. I always thought that I could rely on my memories.

Yet, this new knowledge did give me some new perspectives:

  • I’m a bit more understanding now when my husband retells the story of how we first met and comes up with completely different details to the ones I remember.

Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t remember it right, after all…

  • If we have the potential of altering our memories, could we use this to our advantage by turning bad memories into not so bad ones?

Yes, we can.

It seems that memory manipulation is actually easier than one might think.

One thing that seems to help a lot with this is our emotions and senses. If you make a memory (or recall and restore a memory) using your emotions and all your senses (what you see, hear, smell, taste), that memory will stick a lot more… even if it is false!

Another research (2) had students imagine different objects, even hear some of them now and then (a hammer, toilet flush, baby cry…). The students were also shown some objects. Then, they were asked to recall which they actually saw. Many got muddled up and were convinced they had seen a hammer which they had only imagined and heard…

It seems that repeated exposure to images and sounds (such as seeing photos, day dreaming, hearing somebody recalling events…) muddles up our memories to the point where we don’t remember what actually happened for real.

You might be aware of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic-Programming). NLP uses such techniques to change past experience to ones’ advantage and help cure people from fears.

Memories Have Other Surprises In Store

Have you ever experienced a time where your partner vividly remembers telling you something and you just cannot recall anything at all.

They might think that you’re just lying, taking the mickey or suffering from a mental disease.

In fact, the answer is much simpler.

It’s not that the memory was forgotten.

It’s that it was never formed in the first place.

If you were putting your keys away as your partner was talking to you, your mind will record what it considers to be the most important information…

… and it might well be the keys’ location…

So, next time you want to remember something, don’t do anything else at the same time.

Pay full attention to it.

Other Tips To Help You Remember Better

So, we’ve seen that emotions and senses make memories stronger. So does paying full attention to what you want to memorize.

Now, there’s something else you can do to help transform a short-term memory into a long-term one: space testing.

Once a memory is formed, it is then encoded and stored. If you don’t reinforce it, it will just fade and eventually disappear. In order to remember something forever (for instance if you’re learning a new language), you have to strengthen these memories to make them lasting.

How do you do that?

By testing yourself at regular intervals.

But you’ve got to do it in a specific way.

  1. The way you recall the memory is important. You’ve got to make it a test rather than just re-reading a list. In this way, the recall process becomes active and you have more chance of remembering what it is you want to remember.
  2. The frequency at which you recall the memory is also important. You’ve got more chance of consolidating the memory if you recall it just before you’re about to forget it:
    1. a few seconds after learning it
    2. a few minutes after
    3. a few hours later (so 3 times the first day)
    4. the day after
    5. the week after
    6. the month after
    7. a few months after
    8. a year after

Memories are a fascinating subject in the way they’re created, recalled, transformed without us being very much aware of what our brain is doing for us in the background.

But, armed with that knowledge, we too can consciously influence that process to our benefit – opening endless opportunities.

Have you ever experienced any β€˜hiccups’ in your memories such as the ones described in this article? Maybe others?

(1) http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/memories.aspx
(2) http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar00/memory.aspx


Comments

Memories: How Your Memories Can Trick You – and What To Do About It… — 18 Comments

  1. Isabelle,
    This is so fascinating. I can totally relate to this. Like remembering a dream when you wake up but then not remembering it 2 hours later. Or putting my keys down but not remembering where i put them.

    I wonder if marketing people study this technique to replace our memories? Probably don’t you think?

    Just one question what is “taking the mickey ?” Does it mean, taking drugs?

    • Hi Annie,

      I’m not sure marketing people use this to replace or alter our memories. But, what they definitely do is look into what is going to make us memorize their ad/product better (music, rhyming words, colours,…). That too is fascinating. I wish marketing people didn’t use these tricks for sugar loaded unhealthy products. But, that’s a different subject!

      As for taking the mickey! Sorry, being French, I don’t always realize what is English, what is American. It means to tease or make fun of.

      Take care
      Isabelle

      • Isabelle,
        I hate that about the advertising companies. My daughter is totally impressed by the back of cereal boxes. At least here in France, the boxes are up high. But back in the US and Canada, they put the boxes at childrens eye level for children to see and then bug their parents.

        ps.
        I hear you about what is englisha and american words.

        I have the same issue with quebecois french and French from France. So many words here in France we don’t use in Quebec. For instance, we don’t say “le parking” in Quebec, we say “stationnement”. Or we don’t say “bon weekend”. We say “bon fin de semaine”.
        the best one was when i said “Je suis plein” which in quebec means i am full but here in France as you know is kind of vulgar.
        Oh well. I could go on but you get the point.

        Hope you and Alan have a “bon weekend”…

        • Hi Annie,

          I actually love the fact that Quebecois seems to have less English words than French: ‘fin de semaine’ instead of week-end, canneberge instead of cranberry. What a lovely singing accent too. Interesting how languages evolve differently from the same basis in a point in time long ago.

          Bonne fin de semaine!

  2. Isabelle,

    I always thought I had a bad memory but come to think of it I bet I am just not noting what I believe is important at that moment. Which in fact actually makes the situation worse because if it was an important event then I should be paying attention.

    This article has really helped me realize what I need to do if I need to remember something-definitely clear my mind and pay attention.

    ~Allie

    • Hi Allie,

      Paying attention is good for learning but it’s also good for important events, like you said.
      It’s also good for everyday life.
      I’m definitely the type who cannot double-task. If my mind is cluttered, I won’t remember where I put my keys or if I did lock that door.
      I would end up in my car thinking… did I lock that door?… better return to check.
      Now, I really pay attention… it saves me time πŸ™‚

      Take care
      Isabelle

  3. Hey Isabelle,

    there was actually something on TV last night that I half-watched between falling asleep and trying to fix the kitchen tap which was about people who remember almost every day of their lives in vivid detail.

    I think it was called something like ‘The Boy Who Couldn’t Forget’ or something similar – you should try and catch it on iPlayer or something.

    A similar kind of science/research to what you discussed in the post and with Jeevan was mentioned, but something about these people was apparently different where most people eventually forget things/lose them from long term memory, they just didn’t. One of the scientists claimed it was because they had added ‘Reward/Drivers’ in terms of being obsessed with their own past lives.

    Anyways – it was interesting stuff – see if you can find it!

    πŸ˜‰

  4. Isabelle, thanks a lot for sharing this with us.

    You forgot to mention something important in your tips to help remember better. A good memory starts with a good diet and PLENTY of water! Brain function, including memory, cannot take place without the proper amount of hydration. Most people do not truly understand how much our brains are affected by water. The brain cannot store water, so it is vital that we drink up and drink often. A shriveled and dried out brain will not function at its maximum capacity like a well-hydrated brain can.

    I have just released a Kindle book on the subject.

    Isabelle, if you don’t mind, I would like to share it with your readers. I have setup a page where I will be giving 7 copies for free every day until next Wednesday.

    http://nutritiongang.com/contest/superfoods-power/

    Take care
    Charles

  5. Hi Isabelle!
    remember to the memory of the past event can’t be 100%.and i think some event like happy occasion,big grief and any surprising event can be remain in our mind but everything is impossible.great blog.
    thanks for sharing this blog.

    • Hi Anshul,
      Strong emotions (negative or positive) definitely help remember things. So do rituals where you take an active part (rituals in the sense of repeated traditions – it could be a family ritual at Christmas for instance or Sunday family gatherings…). Stress can also help you remember.
      Memories are a vast and complex subject and one that we’ll probably explore more in future articles.
      Many thanks for your comment.
      Isabelle

      • Hi Isabelle!
        i will do ritual means observance in your opinion and will try to discusion with my family and friends about my past incident and remember the event.

  6. Memories.

    We can’t trust everything we remember, can we?

    πŸ˜‰

    I had learned about this phenomenon in my psychology class (Surprisingly, they also used the 9/11 example to demonstrate this). Memories change.

    Actually, we change them according to our will (Well, not will, we could explain it as something our sub-conscious would do). We want the memory to be something else, even though we know that wasn’t the truth (but, over time, like you said, the memory changes).

    Emotions are the most powerful objects/elements of our life – and we can use them, in a manner of our choosing (like you said, it is surprising that we could convince ourselves of a lie to be truth using different senses and emotions).

    It’s scary too.

    How we could change.

    As with retaining memory, can we really do that for all our memories? I doubt that, but we could use it for important things.

    For instance, a student could use it to study something, right? To retain it in their memory (the forgetting curve is very steep, so we need to rehearse it again and again to retain it).

    Anyways, appreciate your thoughts, Isabelle (and thank you for making those neurons – on what I learned from psychology – active again :D)

    • Hi Jeevan,

      It is scary stuff indeed that you can’t 100% rely on your memories but, at the same time, extremely useful knowledge to have – especially, like you said, to help you memorize what you need to learn.
      I’d always found the idea of the film Total Recall (the original back in the 90s – I haven’t seen the latest one) interesting… implanting fake memories of holidays so you feel like you had those holidays (at a fraction of the cost!) – blurring your reality at the same time.
      I’ll stick to the real stuff and taking photos to help me remember!

      Best wishes
      Isabelle

        • I like all these tips to help remember. Keep them coming!
          Personally, I take photos. I’m always surprised at how clearly I remember past events but not just how young my kids used to be at that time.

          • Hi Charles,

            Do share! We totally agree with the message of drinking more water.
            Send us a book too please (isabelle@lifestoogood.net). We’d love to read it.

            Thanks
            Isabelle

            • Hi Isabelle

              Thank you. I have just sent you the book through the gifting system of Amazon. You should receive an email from them within the next few minutes πŸ™‚

              Would love to hear what you think about it.

              Take care
              Charles

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