Article 2Memory mythsMany of us subscribe to false beliefs about how our memories work,sometimes with serious consequences. We debunk some common mythsBy Christian Jarrett, author of The Rough Guide to PsychologyThe Guardian, Saturday 14 January 2012As a lifelong user of human memory, you probably feel youve got a goodidea of how it works, right? To test your understanding of memory, wecompare several commonplace conceptions with insights from psychology...Memory acts like a video recorderIn a US survey published in 2011, 63% of 1,838 respondents said theybelieved "strongly" or "mostly" that memory works like a video camera,"accurately recording events we see and hear so that we can review andinspect them later". Memory is, in fact, a creative, fallible process, highlyprone to suggestion and other distorting influences.Some people have photographic memoriesAn extension to the memory as video recorder myth is the idea that somepeople have a "photographic memory"; that they can take a snap shot of ascene or a page in a book, and then bring it to mind whenever they want to.Its tempting to invoke such an ability to explain the achievements ofcelebrated memory champions such as Lu Chao. In 2005, he set a newworld record (as recognised by the Guinness World Records) by recitingthe first 67,890 digits of pi entirely from memory. However, studies of
memory champions reveal that they depend on mnemonic devices andthousands of hours of practice.A related concept is eidetic imagery, in which a person claims to "see" adetailed visual scene that is no longer visible. However, tests of"eidetikers" find their memory of images to be no more accurate thancontrol participants. It seems they just feel as though the image is vivid andstill "out there" rather than in their heads.Forgetting occurs graduallySome memory misconceptions have serious consequences for the way eye-(and ear-) witness testimony is treated in court. For example, many people,including psychologists (according to a recent Norwegian survey), believethat forgetting occurs gradually, as if memories decay like an ageing reel offilm. In fact, most forgetting occurs immediately after an event.Confidence is a reliable indicator of memory accuracyWhile its true that accuracy and confidence can correlate within a singlepersons repertoire of recollections, confidence is a poor marker of accuracywhen judging a single act of recollection or when comparing acrosswitnesses. One reason is that some factors, such as repeated questioning,can boost confidence without increasing accuracy. Also, we all vary in ourbaseline levels of memory confidence. So when judging a single witness,we dont know if their confidence is high by their standards. In the legalsystem, when convicted people are exonerated by DNA evidence, confidenttestimony from an eye witness is the most common reason they wereoriginally found guilty.A related myth is that emotional events lead to more ingrained, accuratememories. Memories for dramatic events often feel more vivid and peoplefeel more confident in these memories, but, in fact, they are just as prone tobeing forgotten as ordinary memories. Furthermore, if an event is stressful,this is likely to interfere with remembering details of that event.
Traumatic memories can be repressed and "recovered" years afterthey occurredWhile subscribing to the erroneous idea that memories of emotive eventsare highly accurate, many people also often hold the somewhat paradoxicalbelief that traumatic memories, such as of abuse in childhood, are prone torepression. A related belief is that such memories can be "recovered" laterin life, dug out with the help of a skilled therapist, or perhaps a hypnotist.In fact, studies of child abuse victims suggest strongly that they usually donot forget their experiences. Moreover, research has shown that memoriesof abuse "recovered" in therapy are far less likely to be corroborated bythird parties, or other evidence, than abuse memories recalled later in lifeoutside of therapy, or never-forgotten abuse memories.The consensus of the American Psychological Association on child abusememories says that "most people who were sexually abused as childrenremember all or part of what happened to them, although they may notfully understand or disclose it".Hypnosis can be used to retrieve forgotten memoriesMany people believe that hypnosis can be used to unearth not only pasttraumas but all manner of long-forgotten memories, including recollectionsway back to the womb or even to past lives.In a way, it is a belief that is consistent with the "memory as a videorecorder" myth; the mistaken rationale being that because everything weexperience is stored, we just need to find a way to reach it. In fact, nearlyall the evidence suggests that hypnosis fails to aid recall, but instead has thepotentially harmful effect of increasing peoples faith in their memories,whether or not they are accurate recollections of events.Amnesiacs forget who they areA persistent myth is the idea that people suffering from amnesia have losttheir long-term memory, including any recollection of their identity. In fact,amnesia caused by illness or brain damage typically manifests as aninability to lay down new memories. Specifically what is broken is theability to convert short-term memories into long-term memories. Anamnesiac will usually be able to tell you who they are and share storiesabout their earlier lives, but they wont be able to tell you what they had forbreakfast.