Memory is the essence of our psychological functioning, essential for every move we make – getting dressed, having breakfast, driving to work, doing a crossword, making a cup of tea. Nothing we do in our conscious daily lives does not require memory. So, given our reliance on it, why is it that memory sometimes – or often – lets us down? And is this something to be concerned about, or might it actually be healthy?
Consider some of the many ways in which our memories feel like they’re not working properly. There’s the name you’re told on meeting someone new which you forget within seconds; the act of going upstairs to get something and then forgetting what you went there for; or blissfully remembering a foreign holiday several years ago without any memory of the incident at the airport that upset the family.
It’s probably true that everyone can relate to each of these memory “failures” – and indeed they are failures. But it may be that we should not be too concerned about them. The various types of forgetting involve different issues. For example, sometimes it’s clear that we simply haven’t set a proper memory down in our mind in the first place, like when we forget why we went upstairs.
In other cases there is clearly a memory there, but it’s just not retrievable – such as when a name you know is on the tip of your tongue. Or perhaps the memory has been altered in some regard along the way, when you’re convinced something happened on a Thursday, yet all the facts point to it being a Tuesday.
So what is memory for – and why is forgetfulness such a prevalent experience? Memory serves to give us a record of our lives, to situate us in the present and to plan for the future. It is essential to a sense of self. And while memory lapses can be frustrating, there are ways around them, which can sometimes be beneficial to that sense of self.
If I am constantly forgetting where I put my keys, I develop a routine to deal with the situation. It’s a simple but effective solution which requires practice (and remembering to enact): always put your keys in the same place.
Or, if I want to remember someone’s name, I ensure that on meeting them, I make an extra effort to register their face, say their name aloud, and perhaps try to associate it with someone else of the same name. (Apparently one of former US president Bill Clinton’s strengths as a charismatic politician was that he always remembered people’s names – but this certainly wouldn’t have come without a level of deliberate concentration.)
And if I remember a totally happy holiday and repress the negative incident at the airport, this actually helps me feel better about myself and my experience. I have subconsciously edited out the negative aspect to create a more positive recollection.
Another interesting example of this kind of beneficial “self-editing” is where long-term couples will say to their other half: “I love you more today than yesterday.” When psychologists examined this concept, they found it not to be entirely true. Instead, they found that long-term couples have a commitment to each other that is important for their own personal wellbeing. So if I feel I love you more than yesterday, it is ultimately beneficial to feeling positive about myself – even if it is not objectively true.
Remember to forget
Most people’s memories fail them regularly, and this is because our minds have a limited ability to process all the information in our environment. It simply is not feasible to remember everything we experience.
That said, there are rare cases of people who claim to have “super memories”. They can remember what the weather was like on 6 March 2016, for example, or what they had for lunch on 15 September 2004. One of those “super mnemonists” has described the ability as “a curse [which] plays over and over in my mind”.
The reality of remembering everything would be an overwhelming experience. So for most of us, forgetting things is not just normal – but desirable.
Regular memory failures can often be deliberately and methodically overcome, while changes in memory over time are often due to people maintaining a positive sense of self. And that’s worth remembering.
Catriona Morrison is a professor of psychology at the University of Bradford. This article first appeared on The Conversation
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