The Seven Sins of Memory

It is important not to attribute every memory failure to aging. Normal, healthy memory is far from perfect. An outstanding book by Daniel Schachter, The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)1,provides a good overview of memory failures. This brief blog provides a quick summary of these “sins.” They are transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.

Transience simply means that information in memory is transient. That is, it can be lost. Our minds are not recorders that record everything that happens. Most of the information that bombards us goes unattended and never makes it into memory. This is good as most of this information, and the term is being used loosely here, is of no value. The information might not have been attended to and been quickly lost from memory. Or the memory might have either decayed from memory or been lost among the billions upon billions of associations in memory and is for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

 Absent-mindedness refers to such failures as failing to remember where you put your keys, or to forget to stop by the dry cleaners on your way home. Absent-mindedness might be one of the most annoying memory failures. It might also be one of the most common reasons older people think that their memories are starting to fail. But absent-mindedness is a common occurrence among all age groups. The failure to pay attention, for example when you placed your keys down if you did not place them in a standard place, is the most likely cause of absent-mindedness. More will be written about absent-mindedness and techniques will be presented for dealing with it.

The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is an example of blocking. You know that you know the information, but you cannot recall it. It feels as if the information is on “the tip-of-your-tongue,” Something is blocking this information and preventing you from retrieving it. More will be written in subsequent blogs about blocking and how to deal with it.

Misattribution is a memory failure that has legal implications and can result in law enforcement officers pursuing red herrings or the conviction of innocent people. Misattributions are quite common. A psychologist was accused of rape based on the victim’s detailed description of his face. However, the psychologist was cleared because he had a rock-solid alibi; he was being interviewed on television (ironically on the fallibility of memory) when the rape occurred. The victim was watching the show and misattributed her memory of the psychologists face to the rapist. Unfortunately the courts, or more correctly juries, place great weight on eyewitness testimony. Due to misattribution errors, the innocent can be convicted. A recent analysis of forty cases in which DNA evidence exonerated wrongfully imprisoned individuals revealed that 36 of them (90%) involved mistaken eyewitness testimony. It is disconcerting when one looks at the number of convictions that have been overturned on the basis of new DNA evidence. More will be written about these issues in later blogs.

The sin of suggestibility can produce similar difficulties. Suggestibility in memory refers to the tendency to incorporate into personal recollections misleading information from external sources. These external sources can be other people, picture or written materials. The media can also be the source of misleading information. Schacter makes the following distinction between misattribution and suggestibility: they both involve the conversion of suggestions into inaccurate memories, but misattribution often occurs in the absence of overt suggestions. In the sin of suggestibility, the suggestions are overt.

Biases tend to help us feel better about our situations, our knowledge, and our opinions. Bias has a variety of causes. Information can be biased to make it consistent with our beliefs. When we are expecting a change we might remember a change that did not occur or exaggerate a change that did. There is a hindsight bias, or the “I knew it all along” bias. There is a tendency to think that we predicted certain events, when we did not. This is not simply a matter of lying, our minds have a tendency to work this way. There is also a tendency to remember ourselves in a light that is a tad more favorable than others might remember. And there is a wide variety of stereotypes around that do affect memories. It is important to be aware of these biases so we can correct or mitigate them. There will be more about this in future blogs.

Persistence refers to unwanted thoughts that keep occurring. A song or jingle that keeps running through one’s mind is an innocuous example of persistence, but persistence of certain thoughts can have pathological implications. Schacter recounts the tragic tale of the relief pitcher of the Los Angeles Angels, Donnie, Moore. He was brought in to relieve in a playoff game in a crucial situation against the Boston Red Sox. He served up the game winning home run from which the Angels did not come back. Consequently the Red Sox advanced to the World Series. The memory of this loss persisted in Moore’s memory and he sank into a deepening depression that undermined his marriage and his career. He shot his wife marriage and his career.  He shot his wife numerous times before committing suicide.

So clearly, memory problems do not begin with old age. They are with us throughout our lifetime. It is important to be aware of them and to understand them so our memories do not lead us astray.

1Schacter, D.  L. (2001).  Boston:  Houghton-Mifflin.

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One Response to “The Seven Sins of Memory”

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