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Why Your Memory is Far Better Than You Think

... and why most of us mistakenly believe it's weak.

Consider the volume of personal details in our lives that we remember accurately, and over long periods of time: The names of friends, colleagues, and people in our family; our own name, our birthday, and our addresses, past and present. We remember when we first fell in love, the births of our children, the deaths of our loved ones, where we work, the teachers who have influenced us, scenes from movies, lines of poetry, the melodies and lyrics of hundreds of popular songs, a stinging insult we received decades ago. Our first kiss.

Memory can have unsurpassed endurance. Specific memories can last longer than the documents that validate them, which can get lost or destroyed, or actual physical structures, which deteriorate, grow dilapidated, and get torn down. Memories of parents and grandparents live on long after we have become parents and grandparents ourselves.

Why, then, do many of us emphasize and dwell on the inaccuracy of memory?

One answer is the availability bias. We are far more likely to recall instances of flawed memories than instances of accuracy. We do not celebrate every time we find our way home or accurately remember the names of our children, but we may note very clearly making a wrong turn when visiting a colleague, misremembering the name of a neighbor, or forgetting why we went into the garage.

Mistakes of memory are more newsworthy to us than everyday accuracy, just as crimes are more newsworthy than everyday legal behavior. We do not shout out our memory accuracies. (Ironically, remembering instances of faulty recall is a form of accurate memory.)

Another reason we emphasize the faultiness of memory is the well-documented inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. But we should not treat eyewitness testimony as typical of all personal memory. Remembering details from brief, unanticipated events is simply not something we do very well.

Fleeting glimpses of unexpected events occur every day and are forgotten every day—because there is no reason to remember them and no consequences for forgetting, unless they become important after the fact, as in the case of a crime. Research on eyewitness testimony is vitally important, with life-and-death consequences, but we should not extrapolate errors in eyewitness testimony to characterize all of personal memory.

Recently, during a discussion of autobiographical memory in my class on cognitive psychology, one of my students asserted that all memory is constructed, that it is an ever-changing, unreliable fiction. When another student challenged this assertion, the first student insisted she was correct, saying she had read about memory constructions in one of our assigned articles. When pressed, she cited the particular author and title, inadvertently revealing the inherent inconsistency of an extreme constructivist position: She had accurately remembered the article on inaccurate memory.

Even those who emphasize the faultiness of memory need accurate memory to support their skepticism. How are childhood memories shown to be incorrect? Often by comparing them to the memories of parents or older siblings, which are assumed to be accurate.

More broadly, if memories did not represent interpretations of past events, we could never converse about shared experiences with friends or family. We could never satisfactorily discuss the news or movies or sports or findings from research studies. We could, in fact, never reference anything, unless the evidence was physically right in front of us.

My plea for the accuracy and durability of memory is not a cri du coeur so much as a cri de l’esprit. Of course memory has weaknesses: We exaggerate, we blend different events, we allow general knowledge to intrude on specific memories, we forget sources of information, we have trouble remembering some names (and passwords). But memory illusions do not discount all of memory any more than visual illusions discount all of perception.

We have not evolved to misremember the world. Our memory can be an accurate representation of what we have perceived and interpreted. All I ask is that we occasionally take the time to appreciate how truly remarkable—and accurate—memory can be.

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