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False Memory and Other Quirks of Recall

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Memory function is very complex and still far from being fully understood. When we stumble in recalling something, we might wonder if forgetfulness is a sign that something is going wrong. Usually, it isn’t.

What Can You Remember? What Can You Not?

What Can You Remember? What Can You Not?

False Memories

Some people recall, with vivid detail, memories of events in their lives that never actually occurred. To say the notion of pseudomemory, as it’s sometimes called, is controversial is an understatement, probably because it’s often connected to allegations of sexual abuse.

Most false memories involve trivial events; you clearly remember locking the door when you left for work, but, in fact, you didn’t. But, sometimes they involve far more serious actions.

Healthline.com tells us that false memories may come about in a similar way to how the game “Broken Telephone” is played in which a message changes with each retelling. “Events are moved from your brain’s temporary memory to permanent storage while you sleep. The transition, however, isn’t absolute. Elements of the memory may be lost. This is where false memories can begin.”

The way we recall past events can be faulty and this can and does lead to trouble in courtrooms. In 1974, two U.S. psychologists, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer, carried out experiments to test false memories and found the way in which subjects are questioned has an impact on how accurate their memories are. As an article on Psychologist World notes “The framing of questions following an event can affect our recollection of it, even after it has been remembered.”

People are suggestible and can be led to believe a false memory by the way in which questions are asked. The classic example of this was accusations of sexual abuse at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.

The 1984 allegations grew out of improper interrogation of children who were coaxed in recollections of events that never happened. The trial was one of the most expensive and lengthy in U.S. history and resulted in all charges being dropped. However, the lives of the people falsely accused were shattered.

The Zeigarnik Effect

In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was in a busy Viennese restaurant when she noticed something about the waiters.

Cynthia Vinney (ThoughtCo) explains that severs “could successfully remember the details of the orders for the tables that had yet to receive and pay for their food. As soon as the food was delivered and the check was closed, however, the waiters’ memories of the orders seemed to disappear from their minds.”

So, Dr. Zeigarnik set up some experiments to test if her observation had any validity. She gave study participants tasks such as solving a math problem, or modelling a clay figure. Some subjects were interrupted during their assignments while others were left to complete them without being disturbed.

When interviewed, the interrupted participants had far better recall of their tasks than those who were not interrupted.

Other researchers have confirmed the effect that takes Bluma Zeigarnik’s name. Therapists say the effect can be harnessed to help students; they will likely have better recall of information for exams if they take breaks during study rather than cramming in a single session.

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory

A very rare condition enables some people to remember everything, not just a lot of things, but everything.

Go back 12 years, to the second Thursday in May, what were you doing? You have no idea. But, a person with highly superior autobiographical memory (or HSAM for short), will know what they were wearing, where they were, who they were with, what the weather was like, what they ate for lunch and dinner, etc., etc.

HSAM has only been observed since about the year 2000, but it probably existed before that. The first known case was that of Jill Price, a Southern California woman. She sought help from neuroscientist Jim McGaugh because she was troubled by having an extremely detailed memory of all the events in her life from when she turned 12.

Her story made it into the news media and other people with HSAM came forward. So far, about 60 cases have been identified.

Interestingly, people with HSAM are no better than the rest of us in remembering a random list of words or the items we need at the supermarket we are so sure we don’t need to write down. Dang, forgot toothpaste.

The total recall for such people is limited to their own life experiences, but why it happens at all is still a bit of a mystery. Brain scans don’t reveal any physical abnormalities in those with HSAM, so neuroscientists are left with making guesses, albeit educated ones. People with the condition have a higher than usual ability to fantasize and to immerse themselves in activities.

It might be a neat party trick but being able to remember everything can have its drawbacks. All of us have embarrassing moments in our past we’d prefer to bury and some have traumatic experiences that they are destined to relive along with all the raw emotions.

Photographic Memories

You’ve probably heard references to people having “photographic memories,” but researchers question whether such a condition exists.

Our memories are quite visual; most of us can remember a person’s face more readily than we can recall their name. But, that’s different from turning the pages of a book and then being able to repeat all the text, word for word, as though reading a photograph of the passage in the mind’s eye.

People such as Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Darwin claimed to possess photographic memories but modern researchers believe their well-above average memories were really a function of their well-above average intelligence.

However, a few people, usually children, do have what’s called an eidetic memory. Joshua Foer (Slate) explains: “An eidetic image is essentially a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind’s eye for up to a few minutes before fading away. Children with eidetic memory never have anything close to perfect recall, and they typically aren’t able to visualize anything as detailed as a body of text.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Humans have short-term and long-term memories. The short-term memory is very small and can hold fewer than seven items at a time, which are transferred to the long-term memory banks to make room for incoming data.
  • The World Memory Championships are held annually. Contestants are challenged to remember number sequences, playing cards, word lists, historic dates, images, and other memory tests.
  • In 2007, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He displayed an appalling lack of recollection more than 50 times.
  • “The Blessing and Curse of the People Who Never Forget.” David Robson, BBC Future, January 26, 2016.
  • “What Is the Zeigarnik Effect? Definition and Examples. Cynthia Vinney, ThoughtCo, September 30, 2019.
  • “False Memories.” Psychologist World, undated.
  • “Kaavya Syndrome.” Joshua Foer, Slate, April 27, 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on February 06, 2021:

I often forgot where I parked my car at the supermarket parking lot. But I can recall with vivid details of some events when I was a little child in kindergarten more than 50 years ago. Go figure! Thanks Rupert - for another delightful and insightful reading!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2021:

Those dang false memories. I have a clear mental picture of a celebration at the end of World War II, in which a long table was set up on Springfield Gardens, Upminster for a party for all the children. But, do I remember the occasion or do I remember a photograph of the event. I was only a little over two-years-old at the time so it's most likely I recall the photo. I'll never know.

I also remember taking five wickets and scoring a century at Lords against the Australians but strangely there's no record of that ever happening.

Ann Carr from SW England on February 05, 2021:

The memory is a complicated thing. Short-term and long-term recall are interesting. Dyslexics suffer from short-term memory loss but often if much 'over-learning' is done (learning the same thing in different ways over a while) then the information is passed to long-term memory and usually is easier to recall.

This is an interesting view of various types of memory. It seems that some also respond better to visual stimulus, others to aural, but most respond the best when a multi-sensory method is used. I find it fascinating but then I taught dyslexics for a number of years.

False memories can also occur when we're told often by our parents about what we did as toddlers. The re-telling is slightly different and then our memories can change a little more.. and so on!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 05, 2021:

It is fascinating what is stored in our brains and what we can recall. False memories can surely cause problems.