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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.

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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.

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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

[1] APA PsycNET
[2] Unreliable Memory, Psychology Today
[3] Memories can’t always be trusted, neuroscience experiment shows, Los Angeles Times
[4] Good Diet, Exercise Keep Brain Healthy, Live Science
[5] Sleep, Learning, and Memory, Healthy Sleep
[6] Why Stress is Deadly, Live Science

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Christopher Young

Freelance Blogger, Writer and Journalist

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”

      Example

      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Artofmemory.com. Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.

        Example

        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.

        C

        J

        H

        D

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        P

        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.

        Cubs

        Just

        Hate

        Doing

        Push-ups

        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to Artofmemory.com, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.

          Example

          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe

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          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.

            Example

            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?

            081127882

            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.

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            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.

              Example

              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via unsplash.com

              Reference

              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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