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Our Memories, Ourselves

Forgetting and remembering function as parts of one integrated, adaptive system.

In a fundamental sense, we are our memories. The most profound aspects of our selfhood—our identity, autobiography, emotional architecture, and social connections—are dependent on memory.

If you can’t recall the first word you said by the time you utter the second, how do you create and communicate meaning? If what you saw a second ago is forgotten by the time you move your eyes to scan the view, how do you acquire and evaluate knowledge?

Our lives emerge from the interaction between experience and the memory of it. Metaphorically, experience is our job, but memory is home. We reside in our remembering self. A wonderful memory of something that never actually happened will make us happier than a wonderful but wholly forgotten actual event.

Our current knowledge of the brain is insufficient to allow a clear view of how memory works. Thus we cannot diagnose, repair, or replace memory as we can our knee or heart.

Still, we do know several important things about memory. First, our memories are stored in the brain as diffused associative neural networks. When people say "she has a good memory," what they actually mean is "she is good at remembering"—which is the process of accessing and activating the stored networks. Those functions can be quite independent, in the same way that the type of car you drive is independent of the kind of driver you are.

Second, memory is not a video camera that films our life events and stores the movies in a library for later screening. Rather, remembering is an active process of reconstruction. As such it is malleable, given to distortion, and sensitive to outside influences both as we encode events and later, at retrieval.

What we remember will depend on factors like our mood, our level of arousal, our expectations and prior experience, and how our recollections are being elicited. The act of retrieval itself may alter the memory retrieved. When we remember, our brains change; that is, we change.

Insomuch as they select, tweak, and rearrange the materials of our experience into coherent and meaningful accounts, memories are in effect fictional narratives. Insomuch as they are narratives, they are always beholden to a point of view. In human memory, the original text is always lost. Only interpretations remain.

Forgetting is often seen as the failure of memory. But it is not always that. Forgetting and remembering function, to an extent, as parts of one integrated, adaptive system, like wakefulness and sleep. Forgetting can actually aid memory. The ability to forget inessential parts of a scene can help us remember the essential parts. Forgetting can also serve a useful social function. If I retain the memory of how you hurt me in all its intensity and urgency, I may not be able to forgive you and move on.

Psychological research has identified four basic types of forgetting. The first is storage failure. This happens when we fail to meaningfully tie new information to our existing knowledge: You didn’t take time to properly anchor the boat at the dock, so it slipped back into the sea overnight.

The second is interference, as when, at a party, learning Julie’s name hinders my ability to remember Judy’s name when we meet a few minutes later, or vice versa.

The third is retrieval failure, when we can’t access a certain piece of information even though we know it’s there: The money is in the safe, but we’ve lost the key.

Finally, there’s psychologically motivated forgetting, a protective mechanism working to shield us from discomfort—as when you conveniently forget a dentist appointment. Such forgetting also helps us maintain the integrity of our self-concept and narrative in the face of ill-fitting information: We remember the highlights of our honeymoon, not so much the petty quarrels and the irritating long lines at the hotel buffet.

Both remembering and forgetting have an unruly quality. We often forget what we wish to remember and remember what we wish to forget. Like children, our memories belong to us; we help shape and guide them; we can benefit from them and at times rejoice in them. But their motives often remain obscure, their actions baffling. They are neither fully known to us, nor fully under our control.

This raises a question at once cutting edge and timeless: If we are not the masters of our own remembering and forgetting, then who is?

An earlier version of this article (translated into German) was published in the magazine Cultural Exchange, 2016.