Psychology Myth: Perfect Memory?

Although we all suffer common idiosyncrasies of memory recall, a significant group of people maintain that memory is an infallible mechanism of our consciousness.  We often hear people say, “How could I forget?  It was so traumatic/emotional/vivid/etc.”  However, those reasons given are actually reasons to NOT trust the memory recall.

In the extreme, flashbulb memories are those times of vivid experience and recollection.  Common examples are 9/11, the Challenger explosion, moon landing, etc.  These are things we can ask people, “Where were you when X happened?” and they will be able to recall.  However, psychology research revealed that people’s apparent perfect recollection of flashbulb memories are actually susceptible to fabrication.  This example, of the Challenger explosion, takes the recollection of one persons experience 24 hours after experiencing it and then two years later;

Description 1. “I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about [it]. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.”

Description 2. “When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.”

In addition, our recollection is susceptible to false memories and integrating details that were never there to begin with!

False memories were a common problem with psychotherapists of the psychodynamic approach.  With enough persuasion or self-rationalization, memories that never happened will be recalled as real experiences.  Causes for these are memories that were actually in dreams or memories that are invented to explain behaviour as “repressed memories”.  However, many apparent repressed memories are truly invented memories created to help adapt or explain current maladaptive behaviours.

In another experiment, it was shown that one could confuse details that never happened to actually have happened.  In the simple wording of a question, one can be mislead into details about a past experience.  For example, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?'” compared to “‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?'” renders a significant difference in recollection of the speed of cars in an accident.

In addition, we are often mislead by others in thinking that the more details one gives, the more reliable their experience must be.  However, the most reliable testimony and traumatic experiences actually render very little details but broad and vague recollections.  For example, an unreliable testimony would say, “I remember him wearing a fleece jacket with a comb in his shirt and I also noticed that he had two fillings” whereas a reliable testimony is more likely to say something along the lines of “I remember him.. holding a gun.. I was scared”.

We all consider ourselves masters of consciousness and that is the main reason why we are all susceptible to these mistakes.  Our own conscious memories require attention and questioning.

What do you think…?



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