7 Surprising Facts About Remembering

Can you remember to forget? Or forget to remember?

Posted Mar 01, 2011

We don't think much about memory until we're old enough to have forgotten some portion of what we've experienced. And then we wonder why it's so hard to call up certain events, and too easy to keep remembering what we'd rather forget.

For a rich perspective on memory, dip into The Act of Remembering: Toward an Understanding of How We Recall the Past, edited by cognitive psychologist John H. Mace, with chapters from major researchers around the world.

Lately, I'm particularly drawn to books on how we recall and forget parts of our own stories because my second novel involves personal narratives offered by characters at different stages of their lives.

Here are just a few of the facts I found enlightening:

  • Memories that pop up involuntarily share a lot in common with those recalled voluntarily, including being equally vivid.
  • Memories arrive in a series, called a memory chain, and may be either time-related or concept-related.
  • Spontaneous remembering is not irrelevant mind-wandering but how we answer the question: "What do I do next, to further my most important goals?"
  • Spreading activation--the notion that an activated memory will spread to and bring up related memories--doesn't mean that all such related memories rise to the conscious level.
  • Whether we see ourselves from a first-person or third-person (outsider) perspective in our memories may depend on whether we are male or female, Asian or Causasian. Women more often see themselves as though from the outside.
  • By one and a half years, kids can participate in conversations when an adult talks about "what happened" and asks for confirmation. The more the adult partner elaborates about past mental states, the more the child develops a narrative about herself with psychological depth.
  • Depressed individuals who try to suppress particular memories find such memories become more instrusive.

All in all, this is a serious book about a most fascinating subject. What do you wish you could remember or forget?

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.