Generic filters
Exact matches only

In Honor of a Terrible Memory

3 months ago

by Curtis Kelly

There are three kinds of people in the world. Those who remember everything and those who forget everything.

This is one of my favorite jokes. If only I could be one of those people who remember everything.

I don’t, and I consider my poor memory one of my greatest shortcomings. I wonder how many days of my life I have spent feeling bad about something that happened because of it: for example, at least once a month, some young person runs up to me and greets me warmly, as one would a family member. Who is she? Most likely a student, so I start my fishing there. “So, did you like that class? Have you graduated yet?” Then I find out she is my niece.

Other sins, small and large: 1) Spending hours looking for my cell phone and then finding it on the toilet paper holder; 2) talking about a theory in a presentation and attributing it to the wrong person, such as my first grade teacher; 3) telling a colleague about a new idea I came up with and then her saying that she saw exactly the same thing on YouTube last year, and I then remember I did too; and 4) finally, telling my children about how I met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland (Bugs is Warner Bros., not Disney).

Total Lifetime Time Spent Embarrassed? Days, weeks, months of my life, probably years. If only I could be one of those people. Do you ever feel that way too? I think almost everyone does. So let’s look at the dark topic of forgetting, and just to let you know, there is some good news later.

Now, we tend to think of faulty memory as just forgetting, but Daniel Schacter, in his wonderful book, The Seven Sins of Memory, breaks it down into, as you probably guessed, seven categories. They include:

Transience – change and deterioration in a memory over time

Absent-mindedness – not remembering because you were not paying attention

Blocking – another memory interferes with encoding or recall

as – partial or inaccurate remembrance caused by your feelings about the event

Persistence – the inability to get a memory, usually negative, out of your head


Not recognizing my niece was transience, simple forgetting. Since every memory includes context, the same often happens with students. When you meet a student at school, you remember that student’s hobbies, club, best friend, and birthday perfectly well, but if you run into the same student at the mall, you can’t even remember his or her name. Forgetting my phone in the toilet was absent-mindedness. Citing my first-grade teacher for a theory and believing an idea I saw on YouTube was my own were misattribution. And finally, although mentioning Bugs Bunny at Disneyland sounds like transience, it was really suggestibility. I was a subject in this experiment…or was I?…Maybe I had just read about it.

Suggestibility is of particular interest, because it is connected to false or implanted memories, an area of research pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. She has discovered that memories not only merge over time, they can be implanted as well, especially if the “memory” is of a traumatic event.

There might be thousands of people in prison because police questioners unknowingly implanted false memories in the victims: “Look at this picture. Was it this guy?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Absolutely not.” Then two weeks it becomes “Absolutely yes.” Then too, there is poor Brian Williams.

Memory, what Schacter calls “the fragile power,” is amazingly faulty. What a weight for us to bear. And yet, there are people who have perfect memory, at least for autobiographical events. As of 2016, six such people were identified in scientific papers, Jane Price the most famous. You can give her any date from 30 years ago and she can tell you everything she did on that particular day [source]. That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? If only I could be one of those people.

Or maybe not. Do you really want to remember every little detail of every single day? Jane Price doesn’t. What she describes sounds like a personal Hell: Every time she comes across a date, a cascade of vivid memories related to that day flood her consciousness. It is, she says, like living with a split screen: on the left side is the present, on the right is a constantly rolling reel of memories, each one sparked by the appearance of present-day stimuli. With so many memories always at the ready, Price says, it can be maddening–virtually anything she sees or hears can be a potential trigger.

Remembering everything doesn’t sound so good after all. In fact, neurologists have a term for it, hyperthymesia (look at the addendum just after this article). The constant, irrepressible, stream of episodic memories is exhausting, and as one would expect, has a detrimental effect on other cognitive abilities: those related to focus, attention and even the ability to have a conversation.

So, let us look at forgetting again. Maybe it is not the curse we think it is. In fact, I was hiding a critically important point from you: Faulty memory is a blessing.

On one hand, it clears the clutter from our minds. After all, the brain has limits and reducing the clutter strengthens the important parts. But even if we need to forget unimportant things, that still does not explain why we misremember so much of the good stuff. Jane’s and other cases show that the brain has the physiological potential to remember things perfectly, so why in the world does it burden us with things like merging two old birthday parties into one, or forgetting where we put our keys? Fortunately, this is part of the blessing too.

The way the brain combines memories, forgets non-essential details, and shapes memories to fit our biases gives us a huge advantage. But to understand why, you need to know a theory that some people, including myself, consider the most important concept of our time: predictive processing. It is a little counterintuitive at first, but once you understand it, you’ll see why, as Briggs explains, some researchers consider it a “grand unified theory of cognition.”

Basically, the brain is a prediction machine. It predicts constantly, relentlessly, every millisecond. It has to. It has thousands of bits of sensory data coming in every second to manage, far more than it can assimilate. So rather than “taking in a whole scene afresh each moment,” which is far too slow, the brain “projects” its own models of what the scene is as the data is coming in, which is far faster and more efficient [source]. We instantly apply top-down models to fill the gaps. If I am in the kitchen and something touches my back, I automatically

sense it as my wife, because 99.9% of the time, it is. So that subconscious prediction is right and I have saved myself a lot of processing (don’t ask about the one time a spider fell off the ceiling). Were we not to predict, every encounter would be like the time you opened a door and suddenly faced someone completely unexpected. You froze while your brain cycled through every possible explanation. (For an accessible but wonderful read on predictive processing, go to Brigg’s article.)

Well, ten years after Schacter wrote about the seven sins of memory, he added an amazing postscript: the sole purpose of episodic memory is to predict our immediate futures. (Really, look at that addendum.) Predicting, of course, means figuring out what is happening in any particular situation. So how does the brain do that? It pulls up memories of similar situations with the related cause and effect models, affect, and affordances, and uses those to figure the current situation out. Since it must apply these generative models to incoming data instantly, sorting through each previous memory one by one, as Jane Price’s brain does, is far too slow and tiring. So instead, our brains amalgamate memories into handy, ready to apply, gist-like templates without all the details, and that works much better. In this way, it can figure out what is happening in almost any situation and since memory is so pliable, even in situations we have never experienced before [source]. That is why details get lost, memories get mixed, and the traumatic memories get activated by the smallest cues.

So memory is faulty, and that is a blessing. In honor of faulty memory, let’s rework Schacter’s descriptive phrase for memory, “the fragile power.” Fragile denotes something hard and delicate that breaks. Instead, let’s think of memory as something soft and malleable, like putty, that can take the shape of any situation. It does not break, it bends and molds. Indeed, faulty memory truly is a ______.

Addendum: I wrote Daniel Schacter and told him we were featuring him in this issue. To my surprise, he wrote back!

Thanks Curtis, for letting me know about your magazine, and for sending along your article.

The article overall reads well and makes good points. If you can still revise, two issues I would call your attention to:

1) In the memory field, researchers (including McGaugh) no longer use the term ‘hyperthymesia’ – it has been replaced with ‘HSAM’ – highly superior autobiographical memory. I’ve attached a relevant article from a few years ago. [here]

2) You state that after writing Seven Sins, I claimed that the ‘sole purpose of memory is to predict our immediate futures’. The overall gist of that statement is OK, but it is overstated – a more accurate statement would be “an important function of memory is to allow us to imagine, simulate, and predict possible future experiences.” I’ve written a lot on that topic – attached is one of the early articles. [here]

Hope this helps!

Daniel L. Schacter William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology Harvard University

Even before I got his mail, I felt my “sole purpose of memory” comment didn’t really make sense. Yet, the basic idea was so compelling that it somehow altered my memory of his words. Lo and behold; I demonstrate one of the Seven Sins!


Misattribution – remembering something correctly but attributing it to the wrong source

Suggestibility – having a memory warped by information suggested later



Curtis Kelly (EDD) was the first coordinator of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG. He is a Professor at Kansai University in Japan and would like to express his gratitude to the Faculty of Business and Commerce for the research leave that allowed him to write this article. He has written over 30 books and 100 articles, and given over 400 presentations.


The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG
Volume 5, Issue 3, ISSN-2434-1002, March 1, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *