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Our Memory Quirks: Are They for Us or against Us?

There’s more fiction mixed in our facts than we may realize.

Random House
Source: Random House

There’s a lot to digest from the most recent generation of memory researchers. Psychologist Julia Shaw’s book, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory, cites plenty of this research in a fast-paced read that you might be tempted to skim.


Each chapter contains items with far-reaching implications. We need to grasp how our memory works, because in an age so glutted with misinformation, it can easily trick us into believing things that aren’t true.

A blogger for Scientific American, Shaw teaches at University College London. She focuses her own research along the lines of false memory indicators, eyewitness bias, and accusations based on "remembered" incidents that never occurred.

I devote two weeks to memory issues in my course on forensic psychology. I want students who hope to enter the legal system in some capacity to know how central memory is to such things as jury deliberations, victim narratives, mental states, and eyewitness reports. They need to realize that memory accuracy is not as straightforward as it might seem. Most people have a hard time grasping this. I usually repeat “memory is not like a video recorder” a dozen times each semester.

As Shaw points out, memory is more like a Wikipedia page. Considering how poor some of those pages are and how open to being edited by others, this is a scary metaphor. False memory research, especially, should concern us in an era in which leaders often lie and fake news has flooded social media.

From earlier generations of researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus, we know that memory is a reconstructive process. During any of the basic stages of encoding, storage and retrieval, it's subject to numerous factors that could potentially alter it. One, for example, is the simple act of making sense of our experience. We logically "recall" how an incident probably happened, consistent with our personal schemas, so our inferences become entwined with encoding and retrieval. At the same time, details that fail to fit quickly erode (or aren’t processed at all).

No memory, once formed, is cast in stone. Rather, memory is a fluid process that can change over time. Problematically, our brains provide little insight about this change, so we tend not to notice. Yet once the memory for an incident does change, there is no original against which to compare for correction.

Shaw covers a lot of this ground, and adds more. From refuting the idea that some people can recall the details of their birth to correcting notions about flashbulb memories, repressed memories, and even memory wizards, she backs up her statements with research. One chapter that fascinated me features experiments that successfully planted false memories in bees and mice.

So, memories are not exactly accurate, and we should apparently just get used to it. They’re also not as good as we think they are. Strong emotion, a sense of certainty, and plenty of details are no indication that something we remember actually happened in the way we believe. The research shows that we can absorb false narratives about our experiences and then report them back – with extra details! And we can't tell the difference between these false memories and memories of actual experiences.

Our quirks, it turns out, can work both for us and against us.

Some of the research that Shaw describes also disturbs me regarding impacts on education. She talks about four experiments that focused on what happens when people believe they can always locate the information they need in some database. They don't work at remembering it, so they develop digital amnesia and their memory for information is poor. For example, thanks to today's digital storage of phone numbers, most people no longer know by heart the numbers of even the people closest to them.

Although some researchers suggest that education might evolve toward critical thinking skills over information memorization, in fact, there is a need for both. Critical reasoning doesn't work on its own.

In the field of criminal psychology, we have a cache of significant cases that students who want to pursue this discipline should know. Without some memorization of detail, they won’t necessarily know to search for these cases, or how to distinguish good information from bad (and there's plenty of the latter).

We’re losing something valuable when we allow students to believe that all the information they might ever need is on the Internet. As Shaw says, “In an age where information is almost always available to us later, this can have profound implications for how we remember it.” It certainly can, and not in a good way.

The Memory Illusion provides a lot to ponder. At the very least, every trial attorney should read it so they’ll recognize the need to educate juries and to examine how eyewitnesses were handled. Shaw is now on my list, along with Loftus, as a researcher to follow.


Shaw, J. (2017). The memory illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory. Random House UK.