You’ve Probably Forgotten Some Your Most Vivid Memories

Think back to a time in your life that was particularly memorable, or maybe even catastrophic. How vivid are those memories? How many details can you recall from that hour, day or week? It is likely that you are able to remember quite a bit of what happened. As we have learned in class, memories are more easily formed when they have emotional significance. This is thought to be the case in part because of our amygdala’s proximity to the hippocampus, and how the two seem to be intertwined in recalling emotionally charged memories. Some might even find it cruel that you can remember the atrocities of your life before you can remember the piece of important information that you repeated to yourself about a thousand times before taking a test. That is why elaborative rehearsal utilizing your emotion works better than the simple maintenance rehearsal we often use. In the New Yorker article, “You have no Idea What Happened” they delve into the topic of poignant emotional memories, and like me, you might be surprised at what they found.

Ulric Neisser is a cognitive psychologist that, in 1986, was interested in researching the accuracy of people’s memories about the explosion of the Challenger. It turns out that 2 years after the event happened, people were very bad at recalling the details of what happened to them that day, who they were with, what they were doing, etc. However, they were very confident in their false memories. The findings of Neisser piqued the interest of cognitive neuroscientist, Elizabeth Phelps, who would then devote her career to studying emotional memories, and why we get them wrong so often.

Image result for challenger explosion

Phelps would go on to posit that we do remember the core details of an emotional experience, however, we do not recall the peripheral details as well. As I remember from class, Dr. Rettinger gave the example of the tiger attacking you at the watering hole, and the fact that if you were asked to recall how many stripes the tiger had, you would likely not know, or more appropriately, not care. This is what likely happens to us in the case of emotional memories. We are able to recall the thing that was scary, or sad, but we aren’t as capable at getting every single little thing right. That’s why when someone says they, “remember it like it was yesterday” they almost definitely don’t, they just think they do because the important part of the memory is almost palpable to them. Research has shown that small things that we like to think we know, are inaccurate at best, and gravely dangerous at worst. What I mean by the latter is that eyewitness testimony is still admissible in court, and is often the primary means for getting a conviction.

As this article and the supporting research suggests, we are confident in our false memories, so it is conceivable that someone would convict someone of a crime they have very little memory of simply because they are confident they know what they saw. Unless they were hallucinating (which is another conversation entirely) it is reasonable to believe that they do in fact know what they saw. However, what they don’t know is the more important thing to focus on. What they don’t know is what the person’s face looked like, what they were wearing, how tall they were, etc. These are all irrelevant details when your emotional memory tunnel is tuning your sensory systems to obtain only the most important things: whether you’re in danger, where the danger is, and how you get away from it. So the irrelevant details, that get a tiny portion of our attention, are what get people convicted who might have been innocent.

If there is one thing that I have learned in our class, it is that our brains and visual systems are incredible at creating order in the face of ambiguous situations. When we don’t see an entire object, or person, we fill in the rest. When a word is misspelled we don’t even notice because our brain has already corrected the mistake and we skimmed right by it. By the same logic, we might fill in the remaining details of an event we are recalling, especially if we are recalling an event that happened a while ago. We get the central point, like the Challenger exploded, or we got attacked by a dog, and we forget the details quickly and then make them up later to retain continuity in our memories. Think about your most vivid memory, and then consider the possibility that much of that memory has been forgotten and manufactured over the years. It wasn’t yesterday, and if it was, write it down.Image result for model of forgetting

Referenced Article:


2 thoughts on “You’ve Probably Forgotten Some Your Most Vivid Memories

  1. cdrury

    Maintenance rehearsal seems to be what I was conditioned for throughout my middle school and high school years. I wish there was a class taught specifically on how to utilize elaborative rehearsal so I had learned better study tactics before going off to college and realizing the way I have been studying is all wrong. I have read through research myself about how connecting an emotional response can positively charge memories ( if you read my post you can also see it can do the opposite as well!). It is unfortunate that we can so easily remember the bad things that happen to us but not the details.
    Before this class I knew that having eye witnesses join in a conviction was not always reliable but I did not know the extent as to why. Having tunnel vision during a terrifying event is quit the phenomenon, I have witnessed it myself and agree that it is hard to remember certain details of the event besides the horror of it in its whole. I would be interested to see a class made specifically for teaching the discipline of focusing on important details during stressful events, I would sign up right away. I wonder how many people since eye witnesses have been used have been convicted wrongly because of their false memories, the numbers would probably make us all feel very sick. I hope eye witness are screened thoroughly and taken with a grain of salt. You are correct about how our brains are incredible, it’s almost as if our “mind” has a “mind” of its own, ha!

    1. pcrickma Post author

      It is a little frustrating that most of us our taught only shallow level processing techniques in high school, yet the research is readily available to suggest that learning in this way is significantly limited. Any learning that takes place is incidental it seems, when you’re using shallow leveling processing techniques like maintenance rehearsal. I am optimistic that the educators of today and the future will employ better techniques to help their students learn, as there will likely be more focus on learning, memory and cognition going forward (or at least it doesn’t hurt to be hopeful).
      I would agree that our tendency to remember negative events more readily is a little unfortunate, although the evolutionary purpose of this tendency seems pretty clear. If we were wired more for the lives we now live rather than for the lives we lived in our evolutionary history, we would probably be able to remember the positive equally as well as the negative. As far as being taught how to remember more accurately the details of a stressful event, I think this type of training does in fact exist. Police officers are trained in this area, as well as first responders and some members of the military. It definitely seems like a training we could all benefit from, as the likelihood of our being involved in something awful during our lives is pretty high. Hopefully, this is another thing that will become more common for the general populous in the future. Thanks for your comment, you brought up a lot of good points.

Comments are closed.