Human head made of cogs.
Daniel Schacter has appraised memory challenges and reduced them to seven fundamental sins.i The first is transience. Like it or not, as we grow older, our memories become a little fuzzier. It’s not dementia, but it is a kind of forgetfulness that seems to omit details or whole experiences from the distant past, especially if we haven’t recalled the memory for some time. It would seem our synapses over time get just a bit lazy and don’t fire up the way they did in our younger days. Names of famous people become elusive and small details that seemed important at the time get slightly jumbled and obscured from awareness.
Another sin of memory is absent-mindedness. It would seem that it’s attributable to age, but not always. Ever since I met her 30 years ago, my wife is constantly misplacing things and scrambling to remember where they are. I kiddingly tell her that the portable phone she left somewhere in the yard while gardening over twenty years ago is sure to show up any time, even though we have moved 500 miles! The most significant cause of this sin is likely the simple fact that our attention was elsewhere when we put down our keys in an out of the way place.
The third sin of memory is when our attention is divided. Things don’t register as well as when we’re focused on two tasks—so much for those who believe they can multitask and expect that what they’re studying will somehow stick while also watching the last episode of Seinfeld.
This notion of divided attention affecting our memories helps to explain why, in some cases, two people at an event may have distinctive recollections. Dan Simons and Daniel Levinii illustrated this issue of divided attention in a study in which an experimenter would stop and ask people on campus for directions. They arranged for two men holding a door to walk between them while they were talking. Behind the door, the experimenter who initially asked for directions switched places with another experimenter. The men carrying the door moved off, leaving the second experimenter where the previous one had stood just moments before. Surprisingly, only about half of the participants noticed the change.
Interestingly, those who failed to notice this sleight of hand were middle-aged or older. Younger college students readily picked up on the switch. The authors suggest that we tend to encode people under broad rubrics when we get older without paying attention to specific details, such as “the experimenter was a young college student,” whereas younger people attend to far more detail.
The fourth sin of memory is what Schacter refers to as blocking. We meet a person we have known for years and suddenly can’t retrieve their name. It’s right there on the tip of our tongue, but for whatever reason, we can’t pull it up. Stress, no doubt, can play a role in this kind of memory loss. Then, mysteriously, an hour or maybe even a week transpires, and suddenly we recall the name of the friend that we fumbled when going to introduce them to someone else.
Memory can play interesting tricks on us, leading us to attribute an experience to a wrong place or time, or including the wrong actors in the drama. This is the fifth sin of misattribution. In a beautiful film from the 1990s, Avalon, the four Krichinsky brothers immigrate to America and embrace this country, its ways, rituals, and customs. One of the enduring traditions repeated throughout the film is Thanksgiving dinner. All of the family would pack into a small four-story walkup in Baltimore to celebrate this unique American holiday. One of the brothers, Sam, begins reminiscing about the time they brought their parents over to this country and the loving reunion at the harbor. It was a cold, wintry day. Everyone was dressed in woolen overcoats and bundled up. Right in the middle of the scene’s depiction, his wife interrupts him, insisting that it wasn’t winter, but late spring. He reflects on this claim and agrees. The scene rewinds. Everyone is
suddenly wearing summer clothes. At times, we can all mix up the details of a story, confusing or conflating it with another tale or a different season. Without someone there to remind us of the error, the story doesn’t rewind, but in fact, becomes more seared into our memory and may forever be retold with the errors firmly entrenched.
Perhaps the most curious example of misattribution that illustrates how vulnerable we are to this sin of memory occurred when Australian psychologist Donald Thomsoniii, in 1975, was accused of rape. The victim was sure beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the man who broke into her apartment the night before. Fortunately, Thomson, ironically a respected memory expert, was in a TV studio at the time giving a live interview about, of all things, memory distortion. The victim had been watching the interview when she was assaulted. She obviously conflated her memories of that horrendous experience with her memories of the TV show. Thomson’s alibi led to his immediate vindication, but we must be left to wonder how often misattribution contributes to identifying people as the culprit when, in fact, they’re innocent.
Next Week: The Seven Sins of Memory Part II
i Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: Insights from Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, March, 1999, American Psychologist.
ii Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Vol. 5, No. 4, pages 644-649).