Advertising
Advertising

Science Explains Why Our Memories Can’t Be Trusted

Science Explains Why Our Memories Can’t Be Trusted

“I remember where I was when…” A phrase so commonly used when describing our recollections of, often tragic, events. And yet, this common expression has allowed psychologists to trace the unreliability of narratives that human beings place so much faith in; that of major events in our own lives.

A group of researchers, looking at the way our memories of personal experiences shift with time, began an investigation in 2001 days after the 9/11 attacks. The psychologists from more than a dozen universities across the US asked 2,100 Americans to detail their experience of the tragic day.

Questions included where they were, who they were with and how they reacted to the news. The volunteers were questioned again after a 1-year, 3-year and 10-year interval. It was found that forty percent of the respondents changed their recollections of the event markedly with time. Curiously the stories underwent the greatest change when only a year had passed after 9/11. After this the volunteers tended to tell the same false story in the decade that followed.

“You begin to weave a very coherent story,” says study author William Hirst, PhD, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

“And when you have a structured, coherent story, it’s retained for a very long period of time.”

The findings[1] reveal what an important part our inner narrative of events plays, whilst also exposing our memories as being worryingly unreliable. Not only are we able to believe false stories – something that has been proliferated over the U.S. elections with false news – we also have a striking tendency to alter recollections in our minds as time progresses.

Our memories are a story constantly retold

Why do we do this? Well, our minds are constantly building a narrative that forms an integral part of who we are, and our brains simply don’t work like a cloud storage.

As Hirst says, “Human memory is not like a computer, [it] is extremely fallible.”

An example of this is the way we have a propensity to believe something that is false as long as it fits comfortably within a narrative context. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel prize winner, gives a great example of how we’re always searching for causality, reframing events to fit into a context and how we’re ready to believe things as long as they fit fluidly within a context.

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he details two headlines that Bloomberg News ran on the day Saddam Hussein died. Both were focused on how the major event had affected bond prices. One headline read, “U.S. Treasuries Rise; Hussein Capture May Not Curb Terrorism.” Half an hour after this headline broke, bond prices fell and a revised headline was released; “U.S. Treasuries Fall; Hussein Capture Boosts Allure Of Risky Assets”.

We need an anchor to ground our memories and we’re willing to change or distort our recollections of the events surrounding it as long as it works in service of the wider narrative. This, Kahneman claims, is actively happening at a subconscious level with our own memories. Further proof of this is the fact that in the 9/11 study, 80% of volunteers recalled event information that happened on the day accurately. They remembered the anchor more accurately than their own personal experiences.

We may be unknowingly manipulating our memories to fit within the wider context of major events

Psychoanalyst Ken Eisold points to The New York Times’ report that “False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence.” False confessions can be motivated by intimidation tactics, or in order to avoid painful interrogation tactics.

Advertising

As Eisold says though, “all memories are motivated. It is just a matter of degree.”

Our minds may be recollecting things falsely, spurred on by subconscious motivations[2]. The research can be important to allow us to understand the proliferation of false news and how human beings are so susceptible to believing false information and being swayed by propaganda and advertising.

Further advancing the notion that our memories are surprisingly unreliable is a recent study that used genetic engineering to activate the hippocampus – a brain region that is key to memory formation – in mice. They were able to make one set of mice falsely believe they had stepped on part of a maze, triggering an electric shock[3]. They tested this against another set of mice that hadn’t had the false memory implanted. The mice with the false memory avoided the spot whilst the others didn’t.

The study highlighted memory’s important function as a guide for future behaviour, whilst again showing how prone it is to external suggestion.

Advertising

Exercise our brain to keep our mind sharp

Your brain isn’t a muscle, anatomically speaking, but psychologists and neuroscientists suggest exercising it as if it were. Certain activities can lead to a healthy functioning brain and better memory recollection as well as boosted brainpower.

Recent studies have shown that a balanced diet and regular exercise play an enormous part in keeping the brain healthy[4]. Not only do they keep mental illness at bay, they can also enhance cognitive ability. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts and kiwis, for example, have long been highly rated for their benefits to the brain. They help to fight mental disorders whilst also improving learning and memory functions.

Rest is also extremely important[5]. Scientists believe that REM sleep plays an important role in memory development, whilst stress has a terrible effect on the brain[6]. Our memories may not be as reliable as once thought but we can still take steps to keeping a healthy functioning vessel for our personal recollections.

Reference

More by this author

Christopher Young

Freelance Blogger, Writer and Journalist

To Be More Productive, Never Do This To Start Your Morning If You Play Any Musical Instruments, Your Brain Is Very Different From Others’ Workout Your Brain By Learning A New Word Every Day, You Will Get Smarter Why Most Highly Productive And Successful People Are Minimalists This Amazing Animated Film Reminds Us To Stop Wanting To Have Everything In Control, But Be Present

Trending in Brain

1 7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory 2 15 Ways Meditation Benefits Your Brain Power and Your Mood 3 10 Positive Affirmations for Success that will Change your Life 4 What Causes Brain Fog? (7 Things You Can Do to Prevent and Stop It) 5 Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on October 17, 2018

7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

How is your memory? Is your cognitive function as strong as you’d like it to be?

If not, then you’re definitely going to be interested in the memory improvement tips I’ll be sharing with you in this article.

Despite what you might think – or have been told – improving your ability to recall information is certainly possible. You just need to know the right ways to do it. (Don’t worry, as you won’t need to make any significant lifestyle changes.)

So how to improve memory? Let’s dive straight into the first of seven easy ways to improve your memory significantly.

1. Meditate

We live in a world of non-stop, 24/7 information. It’s like a waterfall that’s endlessly pouring news, data, facts and figures into our conscious minds.

Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to absorb this tremendous amount of information. It’s no wonder then, that most people struggle to remember information and recall things.

Even if you believe you have a good memory and are comfortable with multi-tasking, you’ll also be aware that there’s only so much information your brain can process at one time. And research suggests that the more information and distractions, the harder it is for you to transfer information to your long-term memory.[1]

Fortunately, meditation can help you out.

Even if you just meditate for 10 minutes per day, you’ll boost your ability to focus, which in turn, will make it easier for you to remember important facts.

If you need help in shifting into a meditative state, I recommend trying an app like Headspace – which can assist you to achieve this in a convenient and structured way.

And don’t forget, meditation doesn’t just have to be closing your eyes and sitting in a lotus position. Some people prefer to simply take a short walk in nature. This clears and calms their mind, and still provides the all-important boost to their focus.

2. Get plenty of sleep

If you’re sleep deprived or have not been sleeping well, then I’m guessing you’re not remembering well either. This is because sleep and memory are intimately connected.

If you have a busy life and regularly find yourself not getting enough sleep, then this will negatively impact your cognitive abilities – including your memory.

How much sleep should you be getting?

Advertising

Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation, you need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you get this amount of sleep regularly, then within just a few days, you’ll see a tangible improvement to your ability to remember and recall things.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, maintaining a proper sleep cycle is not always easy (especially when the latest Netflix series has just been released!). But if you care about improving your short-term and long-term ability to remember things, then it’s critical that you try to get at least the recommended amount of sleep every night.

Are there ways to hack the sleep cycle?

Yes, there are.

Try these three things:

  • Have a fixed bedtime (preferably before 10pm)
  • Don’t eat too late
  • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible

Sleeping is a precious activity. It regenerates your body, clears your mind, and helps with the storing and retrieval of information.

However, don’t sleep just yet, as I want to tell you about another great way to increase memory…

3. Challenge your brain

When was the last time you challenged your brain?

I don’t mean challenged in the sense of overeating or undersleeping. I’m referring to stretching your mental capabilities through things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and memory games.

To expand your memory bank, and to make your recall razor-sharp, you need to continually challenge your brain.

Feedback from Lifehack readers such as yourself, has suggested that brain training apps are a super-effective way of doing this. Used regularly, these apps can enhance your focus, attention span, problem-thinking ability and memory.

There are hundreds of these apps available (most of them for free), but I recommend starting out with one of the big three:

  • Peak (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
  • Lumosity (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
  • Elevate (Android/iOS, free, 5 million+ downloads)

If you normally spend a chunk of your week playing computer games, then instead of shooting and killing your enemies, why not let some of them live – while you put your attention into boosting your brain power!

Challenging your brain will strengthen your neural pathways and enhance your mental abilities. But don’t just take my word for it, try one of the apps above and see the positive benefits for yourself.

Advertising

4. Take more breaks

When I think back to my days as a budding entrepreneur, I distinctively remember working all the hours under the sun – and many under the moon too!

At that time, I believed that breaks were for the weak, and to become wealthy and successful, I needed to shed blood, sweat and tears.

However, I was wrong.

Taking regular breaks is the best way to keep yourself productive, creative and alive to opportunities. It’s also the best way to learn new information.

Let me explain.

Typically, when studying lots of new information, most people will spend hours reading it – in an attempt to learn and remember the content as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve overlooked something.

Namely, extended study sessions are rarely a good thing, as your ability to retain information naturally declines after a certain period of time.

It’s similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t attempt to train vigorously for four hours in a row. Instead, you’d take regular breaks to give your lungs, heart and muscles adequate time to recover. Failing to do this will result in muscle cramps and overexertion.

It’s the same with your brain. If you overload it with information, you’ll suffer from mental fatigue.

What’s the answer?

Make sure you take regular breaks when learning new information. I recommend at least a 10-minute break every hour. (You may also want to take a look at the Pomodoro Method.)

If you don’t want to be as regimented as that, then take breaks as soon as you find yourself losing the ability to focus on the new material. Your brain will thank you – and your learning aptitude will move up a level.

5. Learn a new skill

I love this quote, as it’s 100% true – but frequently overlooked:

“Learning never exhausts the mind.” – Leonardo da Vinci

From my experience of helping to develop the careers of dozens of Lifehack employees, I can definitively say that participating in meaningful and purposeful activities stimulates the mind. It also reduces stress and enhances health and well-being.

Let me give you an example of this:

Imagine you work for a global financial institution in one of their call centers. You take over 100 calls a day – many of them complaints. When you started the job a few months back, you were excited to be in full-time employment and working for a household name.

Unfortunately, your initial enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.

The endless complaint calls began to take their toll on you. And the supervisors irritated you too, as they were far too interested in micro-managing you – rather than letting you work in your own way.

Now, in the story above, the ending could be that you put up with a job you didn’t like, and led a dull and frustrated working life for years and years. However, an alternative ending is this: you channeled your dissatisfaction in to learning a new skill (computer coding). It took you a year or two to get up to speed, but it allowed you to successfully upgrade your career – and the ongoing learning made the call centre job much more bearable.

Clearly, learning new skills gives you impetus, focus and something to aim for. Your brain loves to learn, and you should tap into this by always seeking our new information. And when learning becomes a habit, you’ll find your ability to remember and recall things effortlessly, becomes a habit too.

6. Start working out

If you’re not already working out regularly, then here’s another reason to do so:

Exercising for 20-30 minutes three times a week will improve your long-term memory.

Regular exercise increases blood flow in your body and supplies the brain with extra oxygen and nutrients. And a well-nourished brain is a well-functioning brain!

“But I just don’t have the time?,” I hear you say.

Not a problem.

A research has shown that a daily burst of 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise, offered many of the benefits of the longer exercise routines.[2] So, if you’re short on time – now you know what to do.

Interested in getting started?

Advertising

Here are five different ways that will help you work out:

  • Join a gym
  • Join a sports team
  • Buy a bike
  • Take up hiking
  • Dance to your favorite music

7. Eat healthier foods

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression: “You are what you eat.”

This applies to your brain too.

The food that you eat helps determine your brain’s capacity to store and recall information. A poor diet (think junk food + soda!) harms not just your physical health, but your mental health too.

Fortunately, there are several foods that are especially good for your brain and your memory. These include: blueberries, celery and dark chocolate. But anything high in antioxidants will have a positive effect on your brain and memory.

Conversely, highly-processed foods and those loaded with sugar will have a negative impact on your memory. This is due to them providing insufficient nutrients for your brain – leading you to easily suffer from mental fatigue.

Want to be mentally healthy? Then eat and drink an abundance of these for brain health:

  • Turmeric – helps new brain cells grown
  • Broccoli – protects the brain against damage
  • Nuts – improves memory
  • Green tea – enhances brain performance, memory and focus[3]
  • Fish oilfish oil supplements can increase your brain power

Here’re more brain food options that improve memory!

Final thoughts

I sincerely hope these seven memory boosting ways that I’ve covered in this article will be of help to you.

You don’t need to implement them all. I suggest just trying the ones that appeal to you.

But, if you’re serious about dramatically improving your memory, then make a start right now on adopting one or more of the ways I’ve suggested. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

Featured photo credit: Eric Ward via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next