Memory Illusions: Will I Remember That?

When people think of illusions, they typically think of something like this:

This right here is an optical illusion, something that deceives the eye as appearing as something that it is actually not. What if I told you that your mind does the same thing that your eyes do in an optical illusion when it comes to memory? Well, pretty much the same thing, but more like the same concept if you catch my drift. Keep reading if you are a tad confused, I promise it will make more sense.

Your brain’s thoughts on memory often deceives itself by thinking that you can hold more or less information than you memory actually can. Have you ever heard something super important in class and didn’t bother to write it down because you thought it was important enough to remember at a later time, but that later time came and you cannot remember what in the world the lecture was even about in the first place? Have you ever known exactly what you wanted to buy from the grocery store and didn’t make a list, but the second you walk into the building, you forget that one really important ingredient you need to make your meal that night? If you’ve said yes to any of these situations or have found yourself in similar ones, you have overestimated your memory, and have been deceived.

By incorrectly judging your memory and how good it will be in the future, you are engaging in meta memory illusions, or “situations that lead people to consistently overestimate or underestimate their future memory of something”. When information is presented in a certain way, either in an obvious manner or as something that is important to us, this impacts how well people will predict they will remember the information, rather than how likely they will actually remember it.

When people judge whether or not something in bold text will be easier to remember, or whether they will remember something they heard at a loud volume, they are choosing to believe that if information is presented in a way that is easier to process, they will remember it in the future. Just because the information was easier to process and that you did not have to put in much effort to storing the information is exactly what leads to not being able to retrieve the information in the future.

This means that when information is processed with meaning behind it, the meaning is what helps with the future retrieval. If new information you learn can fit in with what you already know, this can also lead to better retrieval. There are some memory processes that help ease the initial information processing, like chunking, or taking individual pieces of information and grouping them into larger categories, but this still requires assigning meaning to those larger categories and thus giving meaning to the individual pieces of information.

Because you now know that it is not the ease of processing that helps us remember things in the future, and that it is meaning that helps us better retrieve information, you can try to better predict aspects of your memory and not give way to illusions. If by some chance you still don’t understand what was just in this blog post, take this one key finding away: it is better to be safe than sorry, always write down your grocery lists.


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2 thoughts on “Memory Illusions: Will I Remember That?

  1. mbright

    Well I can definitely say I have experienced meta memory illusions. At that point in time I truly believe I will remember just fine, grocery list are definitely the worst. Of course you always remember what you need once you’ve left the store. This was a very interesting read, I’ve learned something new.

  2. kathrynarntsen

    I knew that writing things down makes it easier to remember them in the future but never thought about the cognitive processes behind it. I am a big fan of using the notes app in my phone when I need to write down a grocery list or remember what someone is saying to me. However, when I am in class it is often difficult to write down everything I think is important in my notebook because professors tend to talk faster than I can write. Information that I don’t write down is usually not processed with the meaning and therefore I cannot retrieve the information in the future. I can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that I will just remember something but this post points to the evidence that writing things down is extremely important for memory.

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