By ADAM DACHIS | Brain Hacks | Published on June 7, 2012
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Myth 2: Your Memory Is An Exact Account of What You See and Experience
Some of us have better memories than others, but no memory is perfect. If you need proof, close your eyes and try to imagine the face of someone you know. In fact, try to imagine your own face. While you’ll be able to conjure up a decent idea of the way you or anyone else looks, you won’t be able to envision every last detail. This is because our memories don’t recall anything we see, hear, sell, taste, or touch with much detail at all. Instead, as psychologist Dan Gilbert points out in his book Stumbling On Happiness, our brains record the seemingly necessary details and fill in the rest when it’s time to remember:
[T]he elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory-at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by ﬁrst being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating-not by actually retrieving-the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.
Gilbert’s conclusions come from memory researcher Daniel Schacter, who believes the construction of memory is very similar to the way we imagine the future:
We have argued in recently that memory plays a critical role in allowing individuals to imagine or simulate events that might occur in their personal futures. We have further suggested that understanding memory’s role in future event simulation may be important for understanding the constructive nature of memory, because the former requires a system that allows flexible recombination of elements of past experience, which may also contribute to memory errors.
While a little common sense and life experience can demonstrate the imperfections in your (and everyone else’s) memory, Schacter’s research points to two important things: we’re no good at recalling past events or imagining the future because our process for doing either is essentially the same—at least as far as our brain functionality is concerned. While this points to much more of a problem than a solution, it certainly helps to remember that no memory is perfect and we’re all designed to recall with error. Next time someone gets something wrong, it’s at least worth remembering that.