Memory Special: How Can Two People Recall an Event So Differently?

This post has the same title as a Feature article by Catherine de Lange in 27 Oct ’18 issue of the “New Scientist.” The article begins, “ We each have a personal memory style determined by the brain, so next time you argue with someone about what really happened, remember that you may both be right.”

Signy Sheldon of McGill University notes that memories are only built when we retrieve them. And if they are retrieved a second time, they are built again. So if we’ve had an argument with someone it would be when you called the event to mind that you created a mental representation of what happened. And of all the details you could have picked out, you can bet you didn’t focus on the same ones as your sparring partner.

Sheldon says, “We are now understanding that there are strong individual differences in how people remember. And these differences are etched in our brain. This can be seen in people who have aphantasia, the inability to form mental images in the minds eye. It is not surprising that such people’s memories also lack a visual component, even though they can recall facts.

To study this further Sheldon and her colleagues asked people to complete a questionnaire about how they tend to remember, before having their brain scanned. The researchers found that people’s memory style was reflected in their brain connectivity. Those who were better remembering facts had more physical links between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in reasoning. Those with richly detailed “autobiographical memories”, by contrast, had more connectivity between the hippocampus and areas involved in visual processing. Sheldon says, “People’s brains are wired differently depending on how they naturally approach the act of retrieval.

In addition to individual brain differences, there are other reasons why two people might have conflicting memories of the same event. Their emotional response is one. Sheldon says, “Emotional events can be recalled much more naturally, almost like they are stamped in out minds.” It is as if we shine a spotlight on the things that really matter to us. What we remember will also be affected by whether we consider it useful. This is beneficial as it helps us learn lessons and bond with others. Sheldon notes, “The malleability of memory is often seen as something that’s broken, “but it’s really very adaptive.”

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