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Memory Problems and How They Get You in Trouble

For each and every thing you do during any given day, you can guarantee that memory plays a role. This is why memory problems can be so troublesome. After all, who would you be without your unique memories of events, people, and experiences?

The fact is that memory plays such a pervasive and pivotal role in our everyday lives that we often neglect its importance – that is, until something happens that disrupts our daily routine. It is when we forget something important or realize that one of our memories is not accurate that memories importance suddenly comes into focus.

Memory Problems Can Affect Many Areas of Life

Just think about all the things that you rely on memory for each day:

  • Recalling the names of your new neighbors
  • Learning the information and skills required to perform a job
  • Remembering what you needed from the grocery store
  • Knowing what time to go pick your kids up from school
  • Drawing on memories from class discussions in order to write an essay
  • Recollecting words, phone numbers, dates, and other details that allow you to interact with others and complete the tasks you need to get done each day
  • Remembering your PIN number so you can access your bank account
  • Recalling all the Internet passwords you need to log into different websites and accounts
  • Knowing that you need to return a phone call or make a doctor’s appointment

As you read this article, you are drawing on memories of how to read and use language, moments in the past that remind you about what reading, and information that you have already learned about human memory.

But, as we all know, memories are not perfect or immune to errors. If you’ve ever struggled to remember a password, forgotten a friend’s birthday, or misplaced an important document, then you know understand the frustrations that can come when memory problems crop up.

Memory, and its associated problems and failings, are an important topic of interest in the field of cognitive psychology.

In his book The Seven Sins of Memory, psychologist and memory expert Daniel L. Schacter presented a framework designed to outline the seven major “sins” of memory, which he identifies as:

  1. Transience
  2. Absent-mindedness
  3. Blocking
  4. Misattribution
  5. Suggestibility
  6. Bias
  7. Persistence

Schacter describes the first three memory problems as those of omission (the memory is lost), and the last four as sins of commission (at least some of the memory is there, but it is either wrong or unwanted).

Learn more about how these memory problems work and the havoc they can inflict on your life.

Transience: How Memories Fade Over Time

One of the most common memory problems involves memories simply fading over time. If I asked you what you had for dinner last night, you could probably remember. You might even be able to remember what you had for dinner several nights ago. But if I asked you to remember what you had for dinner on this same day five weeks ago, your chances of recalling such information are very, very slim.

Short term memories fade quickly, but even long-term memories fade with time. While you might be able to remember some events, particularly those you feel are important, trivial everyday things like what you ate or where you went on a certain day tend to fade relatively quickly as time passes. Even the details of major memories (e.g., your high school graduation, your wedding, the birth of your first child) tend to get a bit fuzzy and unclear as time goes on.

This tendency for memories to weaken over time is a basic feature of memory, but it also lies behind many of our memory problems. Whether you are trying to remember the name of a childhood acquaintance, attempting to recall a vacation you took during your senior year of high school, or struggling to piece together a story you heard years ago, the gradual fading of memories can make it difficult to recall even some of the most crucial details.

Absent-Mindedness: Memory Problems of Distraction

Schacter suggests that absentmindedness happens when there is a problem between attention and memory. They happen when we become distracted or overwhelmed and fail to notice important information and commit it to memory. Unlike transience, these errors don’t happen because the memory fades over time, but because the information is never encoded into memory in the first place.

Most of us are all too familiar with absent-mindedness. You arrive at work only to realize that you forgot your briefcase at home, for example. Why are we so often distracted and forgetful? Schacter suggests that it is because we spend so much of our lives on auto-pilot, performing daily tasks without really thinking about them.

In most cases, this absent-mindedness results in nothing more than some mild inconvenience and annoyance, but sometimes the effects can be much more serious. Consider this: Every year in the U.S., an average of 38 children die of hyperthermia after being left in hot cars. In most cases, their parents got distracted during their daily commute and then forgot to drop their children off at daycare, leaving them strapped in their car seats in sweltering cars for hours. In such cases, absent-mindedness has utterly devastating consequences.

Blocking: Struggling to Remember Things We Know We Know

Does this sound familiar? Someone asks you the name of a mutual acquaintance. You know the person’s name. You know that you know the person’s name. Yet the sought after bit of information seems to lie on the other side of a mental brick wall that you just can’t seem to climb. Sometimes it might seem like the name is right there on the tip of your tongue. You might struggle to remember the name for some time, only to recall it unexpectedly several hours later when you weren’t even thinking about it.

Names seem to be particularly susceptible to this blocking problem. Have you ever went to a movie with a friend and found yourself unable to remember the name of the lead actor? You recognize him, you might even be able to state with certainty the exact letter his first name starts with, but you just can’t seem to extract his full name from your memory banks.

Misattributions: Mistaking the Source of a Memory

Misattributions involve thinking that information came from one source when it really came from somewhere else. For example, you might attribute a funny story to your Uncle Mike when it was really a co-worker who told you about the event. In a lot of cases these misattributions might be relatively minor or inconsequential, but in some settings (such as in a criminal court case), mistaking the source of information can have life altering costs.

For example, imagine an eyewitness who believes that they saw a specific person commit a robbery. The witness insists that they indeed saw the suspect enter a convenience store the morning that the robbery took place, but in reality they actually saw the accused person at the same store the morning before the robbery. While the memory of seeing the individual in question at the location is accurate, the witness misattributes the timing of the sighting.

Suggestibility: How Outside Influence Trigger False Memories

Schacter suggests that suggestibility is possibly one of the most dangerous memory problems of all. Research on false memories has demonstrated that we are surprising susceptible to suggestion, which can then lead us to believe in memories of things that never happened or that are not true. This can be particularly troublesome in legal contexts where cases hinge on eyewitness testimony.

In recent years, there have been numerous prominent cases where people have been convicted of crimes based on the false memories of witnesses, and other troubling incidences where people have been accused of crimes based on false memories elicited through the use of suggestive psychotherapy methods.

While many people might like to believe that they are immune to this, research has shown that virtually everyone is susceptible to suggestion and the formation of false memories. One study demonstrated that even people who had very good memories could be led by suggestion to believe in a false memory.

Psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has been studying and writing about false memories since the mid-1970s, and her work clearly demonstrates just how easily these incorrect recollections can be implanted.

In one study, just asking simple leading questions about a car that “smashed into” another car led witnesses to mistakenly believe that they had seen broken glass in a film portraying a car accident. Suggestion lines of questioning are often used in police interrogations, yet researchers have demonstrated that such methods can actually result in witnesses have false memories and making false claims about what they observed.

Bias: How Our Current Beliefs Influence Our Memories

Our current knowledge and beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world can have a powerful influence on how we remember the past. As we look back on past events from our own lives, we sometimes edit these memories (often unconsciously) to reflect the vision 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 as we look back on our memories, we may find that the things we believe now are not necessarily in line with things we may have done in the past.

This need for consistency in our beliefs and actions can result in mentally rewriting our own memories so that they better match up to our current state of mind. You might, for example, remember feeling distrust of a particular political candidate from a past election even though you actually supported that individual at the time.

Persistence: Remembering Things We Would Rather Forget

Of course, not all memories are good ones. You might find yourself dwelling on the memory of a painful breakup or an embarrassing moment at work. Sometimes, we might even wish that we could just selectively eliminate these memories from our minds, such as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where one character discovers that his girlfriend has had the memory of their relationship erased.

In many cases, this persistence of unwanted memories results in some minor discomfort or regret. In cases of invasive memories of accidents, assaults, robberies, natural disasters, and other traumatic events can lead to depression, flashbacks, rumination, and post traumatic stress disorder, events that can be disabling or even life threatening.

Memory Problems In Review

Memory is vital and plays an essential role in our lives. Our memories can be both impressive and accurate; they also have limitations and often serious failings. While memory problems can have both trivial and serious consequences, Schacter suggests that these mental mistakes are simply a side-effect of other normal and adaptive functions of memory.

Memory processes have evolved to be both efficient and selective, allowing us to adapt and interact in a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information. Our memories might fail us at times, but we are still able to remember a vast amount of vital information, from information that allows us to function every day to the childhood memories that connect us to our past.

Check out Schacter’s book, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, for a closer look at some of the most common memory errors.