The Trivial Significance of Cognition’s Most Fundamental Faculty: Memory

I recently began to get interested in memory, and more specifically, how it defines us. The following is a short narrated video clip I created to expound on this interest, with a longer bit of writing just below it that goes into further detail.

“Most people consider forgetting stuff to be a normal part of living. However, I see it as a huge problem; in a way, there’s nothing I fear more. The strength of your memory dictates the size of your reality.”

-Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (2003)

American journalist Chuck Klosterman is probably best known for his unique comedic takes on subjects concerning pop culture, but often his perspectives extend well beyond the world of entertainment in scope. He is habitually as insightful a writer as he is witty. The above passage, summoned during a discussion of the mind-boggling themes from the 2000 film Memento, is a definite example of this. In it, Klosterman highlights an irony borne by two intriguing thoughts—the first of which is that the majority of people think that forgetting is simply a trivial aspect of life. A more accurate way to say this, and one that I hope more easily provokes an understanding of his point before being discounted for a surface level generalization, might be that a very large number of people, very probably even close to all people, don’t think much about a lapse in memory the vast majority of the time. This may at first seem like an overcritical statement, but pause to think about it for a second. Memory, and memory failure, has a way of naturalizing itself in terms of the attention we give it, due to sheer familiarity. We are used to the way memory works for us individually, and we have experienced moments of both forgetfulness and vividness for essentially as long as we’ve lived, so it typically comes as no remarkable event to us when we can’t remember a particular thing.

Just think of the last time you forgot something—anything you tried to remember but couldn’t, from a person’s name to what you did the week before. When you forgot it did you stop to wonder in awe and bewilderment at the fact that something which you had clearly experienced before (maybe even earlier the same day), and which clearly spent some time passing through neural channels in your hippocampus (more on the science aspect later), had for all intents and purposes vanished from your mind when you attempted to retrieve it? Probably not. Memory is just such an integral part of our daily lives that we are virtually unaware of it from a metamemory, or self-analytic, point of view.

This is not to say that this neglect is always the case. Of course, at times some people (and I would argue a great many percentage points fewer than all those with a capacity for memory) are in wonder at the remarkable nature in which memory affects us and spend a significant amount of time pondering it. Klosterman seems to be one of them, and I will point to another notable individual later on. However, even those who are on occasion musing about memory at this level probably forget and remember most things in their lives naturally without much of a thought. In addition to those few, a very large number of people probably haven’t been in the mindset to be so introspective about an everyday (or every-second, more accurately) occurrence. Thus, the take home point still remains that the function of memory in day-to-day life can really be taken for granted due to sheer familiarity that leads to a sense of it being trivial.

Yet despite these perceptions of triviality, memory is an extraordinarily significant faculty, the abilities of which have unparalleled power in determining how we perceive the world. This statement is loaded with scientific and philosophic implications, but the latter is the perspective that is really at the crux of Klosterman’s statement—“The strength of your memory dictates the size of your reality” (169). What would our realities be like without memory? When it comes down to it, everything we know of the past and present, the world and the universe, the true (or at least what we think is true) and the faulty, would break down. That is to say that all of this knowledge comes as a result of learning by means of our experiences, and all of this learning is held on to by memory. Without memory, all of our individual and collective knowledge of the world would be nonexistent, or at least could not be accessed by our minds after the instant it is first processed.

To take that idea to the next level though, we must consider how the limitations of memory as it does exist to us also dictate our reality. To illustrate that point, think of how many stimuli enter your field of vision in a given day, month, or year. Now think of how many of those stimuli you can recall exactly as they were. The amount of things you recall in some form or another (exact accuracy not ensured) over the course of a year is remarkable no doubt, but compared to how many things enter your visual field in that time it is paltry. Your eyes take in massive amounts of detail virtually every second they are open, but after that initial moment of sight takes place, one is left with only a remembrance of a minute selection of those details.

A large number of psychological studies prove this point, and one in particular that leaves those who are victim to it flabbergasted with their own limitations of awareness was originally conducted in 1999 at Harvard University by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris. The experiment involves participants watching a video that consists of two teams—one dressed in black, the other in white—bouncing and passing basketballs to their respective teammates. The viewer is instructed to completely ignore the black team while trying to count the number of bounces the white team makes. However, in the middle of the clip a person wearing a black gorilla costume marches in between the players, stops to pound its chest, and then continues across until it is out of frame. Amazingly, because viewers are focused on counting the bounces of the white team, more than 50 percent of people do not even notice that there is a giant gorilla in the middle of the basketball game! As Simons and Chabris write, “With each eye fixation, we experience a richly detailed visual world. Yet…we are surprisingly unaware of the details of our environment from one view to the next” (1). This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness” and is entirely due to the fact that our focused attention can only be on a limited number of details. Viewers see the gorilla in the sense that it is within their visual field, but they do not actually see the gorilla by consciously recognizing its presence. This finding shows that automatically by the nature of this imperfection of the senses, as individuals we cannot form what we know as reality based on everything we see. Instead, only a small number of what passes through our vision do we actually perceive as having occurred, which it would seem, given all the things that happen in our plain sight that we don’t remember, is quite a limiting factor to our individual perceptions of reality.

However, even when our attention is focused on the detail we want to later recall, our honest recollections can be significantly different from what actually took place. This fact is probably something you can relate to just by thinking about an event that you can’t quite remember very well, or one in which you thought you remembered well but later found out that your recollection, say of a particular detail, was wrong. A common example of this is when two friends are reminiscing about a particular experience they shared together, but their recollections of a certain part of that experience differ in a way where at least one of them has to be wrong in their account. This is typically a rather harmless example—one friend will likely point out the other’s misstep and he or she will have an “Oh yeah, that’s how it happened” moment, or they might just agree to disagree on what took place.

But what happens when these failures of memory to reproduce exactness happen in a more pragmatically significant environment, like say a courtroom? The consequences can be dire. This concern has been at the forefront of recent memory research that has looked into the types of confounding factors that can skew a person’s recollection of an event. The way in which a question is asked about an experience, for instance, can have an enormous effect on how it is remembered, and definitely has shown the ability to make responses stray from the truth of events in the way the responder originally saw it (Bruck & Ceci, 1995). Consider, for example, the differences between the questions What did the man do after he took out the gun? and, Did you see the man do anything? The first is a leading question that assumes certain things about the situation, assumptions that could potentially influence the way this event is remembered by planting certain contextual hooks into the mind of the eyewitness. This fact is of particular interest to criminal investigators who do not want to influence the way in which their subject remembers an event, because doing so could lead to the prosecution of innocent people.

Probably more common than distortions of our memories that are a result of influences by other people, though, are alterations due to just our own personal experiences. When a memory is made, neural connections in the brain are formed to allow for the recollection of that memory given certain stimuli. However, when more and more memories are made that relate in some way to the original memory, the field of neural connections around the original gets denser and denser, and as a result it can sometimes be hard to discern which components are tied to an event because they were part of it and which components are merely correlated to that event by means of a linking connection. For example, you likely have encountered a time where you experienced two separate events that were related in some way, and then upon future attempts of recollection the details of these events leaked into one another to the point where it was difficult to remember what exactly happened in the first event and what exactly happened in the second. This is referred to as source confusion and is a very common occurrence as time elapses after a memory is formed and more and more experiences occur that the mind can connect to that original memory and mistakenly mix up when called upon (Gleitman, Reisberg, & Gross, 252).

But beyond just the skewing of our recollection of experiences, studies have also shown that it is even possible for whole events to be implanted into our memories that never actually happened. This seems like a bit of a wild idea to toss around, but the innovative work of University of Irvine professor Elizabeth Loftus, who was ranked in a 2002 listing as the most eminent female psychologist of the 20th century, has shown it to be something that really can happen rather easily (Haggbloom 147). In a study published in 1995, Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell, a graduate student from the University of Washington, gave participants journal-like booklets that contained three short narrative descriptions of events written by someone in their family, and one false experience—being lost in a shopping mall at age 5—that never happened. The set-up led the participants to believe that all four events were drawn from their childhoods, and they were to merely talk and write about their recollections of the events. Amazingly, upon being interviewed exactly 25% of the subjects expressed remembrance of the false event, and some even went into surprisingly detailed accounts of what happened in what they were convinced was a real experience from their childhood (Loftus & Pickrell, 722). One subject referred to as “Chris,” for example, “remembered” his feeling of dread that he would never see his family again. He then had this to say about the event that never happened to him: “An older man approached me. He was tall, and I don’t know his age, but he was older. He had a flannel shirt on; I remember the flannel shirt” (False Memories). As an outsider to Chris’ thought processes it is tough to tell where the imagery of a flannel shirt came from for him, but the fact that he “remembered” such a detail about an experience that never happened is remarkable. Most of the participants in Loftus’ study did not claim to remember the false event, a detail that could probably be expected, but the fact that a quarter of them were lead to believe that they had been lost at 5 years old when in actuality nothing of the sort happened shows that these false memories are possible to implant, even with just a short written account of the event. Other studies since then have built on Loftus’ findings, with one employing the use of digitally altered photographs to convince over 50% of participants that they had been on a hot-air balloon ride when in truth none of them had (Wade, et al, 2002).

This demonstrably extreme malleability of our memories is frankly quite frightening in terms of what it says about our common assumptions on the matter.  But what does this manipulability mean for us and our perception of the world? A chilling perspective is capable of being found in mainstream literature. The acclaimed English author George Orwell expanded fictionally on this theme of memory alteration, and a host of others, in his novel 1984, which is typically regarded as the work he is best known for. The world inside the novel is one of perpetual, regulated brainwashing. The ironically named Ministry of Truth, the governmental organization where the protagonist Winston Smith works, is mainly focused on revising the records of past events to alter the public’s memory of how history has unfolded and what their current reality is. As Winston explains in Book 1, “…the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth” (34). In a similar sense to the example in 1984, the relatives in the Loftus experiment altered the written history of the study’s participants, and if those who it fooled weren’t debriefed of the deception at the end of the trial, those lies too would have become the truth as far as those people knew.

What does this mean for our conception of what reality is? If we can be convinced that we’ve experienced things that never happened, and that our recollection of things that have happened can sometimes be wrong without deception induced by others, then it seems like we should at least be wary of the fact that convoluted memories of our pasts exist in our minds. However, because the complex processes of memory have a naturalizing effect that makes them seem a lot more mundane than they actually are, many people likely do not think of memory in this way, and are thus likely not wary of the distortions of their own realities that come from this faculty. The main character in Orwell’s novel ultimately ends up brainwashed, assimilated, and complete prey to the faults of his memory. Are we consigned to the same fate?

The answer is inevitably yes to some degree—it is unlikely that we will ever be without all of the natural limitations of human memory. But to a larger measure, the future is not as bleak as Orwell paints it, and the hope lies in another estrangement of common assumption. Because of memory’s tendency to become naturalized due to our sheer familiarity with it, it seems that it also has a tendency for its capacity to be perceived as inherent and, for the most part, immutable. With the exception of factors like age (both young and old) and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, it can appear that the strengths of our individual memories are what they are. However, this is simply not true. Just the act of transcending the seemingly trivial nature of recollecting and forgetting—taking the approach that Klosterman did—has extraordinary implications for the ability of one’s memory and learning capacity (Blackwell, Dweck, & Trzesniewski, 2007). The act of doing this, of looking introspectively and analytically at one’s own memory, is known as metamemory, a term that is slowly starting to make its way into discussions of learning and education.

Memory and its relation to learning are easily thought about in a stagnant, old-fashioned sense, but there should be a progression of thought in this domain where the art of acquiring new information, and maintaining its accuracy over time, lends an eager ear towards the advancements being made in the science of the brain. A natural question that will make its way to the front of education topics in the near future, and indeed has already to a small degree, is how can our growing understanding of the neurological aspects of memory be used to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of learning?

The answer lies strongly in the concept of metamemory, both in how it applies to teachers and to how it applies to students. As Marie Carroll from the Australian National University recently put it in an article published in the Handbook of Metamemory and Memory (2008), “There is now a wealth of metamemory research that can be applied to the classroom…. [and] an important practical goal in this decade is to translate the findings [there]…to ensure that it…[makes] faculty aware of what should be done to improve learning” (424).  If teachers have a better understanding of how their students remember and learn, and if, more importantly, the students have a better understanding of the processes involved in their own learning, efficiency in acquiring new information has the potential to be substantially increased. Carroll is right, in the last 20 years, cognitive science has seen enormous advancements in our understanding of the way memory works. The next step is to apply that knowledge to schools, because knowing how one learns is fundamental in learning to the best of one’s ability.

To take a step back to the foundation, memory has been shown to be quite malleable and fallible, and frankly that has frightening implications for what it means about our perception of reality. So how do we know what reality is? That is a philosophical question based in such entanglements of sensory limitations that it is likely we will never have a certain answer for it. However, a direction that we can and should move in is illustrated by the following question: What, if anything, can we do to strengthen our memories so that our sense of reality may be stronger as well? It starts primarily with how we think about our own personal cognition. Getting mentally beyond memory’s naturalizing tendency is the key to being able to recognize and be wary of its limitations and their abilities to distort our reality. As Confucius is reported as once having said, “The common man marvels at the uncommon; the wise man marvels at the commonplace.” The function of memory is certainly a commonplace event, but if we examine its complexities introspectively the evidence suggests that science’s increasing understanding of how memory works will have great consequences when applied to the thoughts of everyday people outside of science. If we understand how it works, we should be able to personally optimize its abilities to a greater degree, and even spread that understanding and optimization through our education system. Given this way of thinking, maybe through the increased strengths of our collective memories we as a people can achieve a stronger reality for ourselves, and who knows what implications that kind of strength of mind could hold for the future.

Works Cited

Blackwell, L., Dweck, C.S., & Trzesniewski, K.H. (2007). “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development Vol 78, No. 1, 246-263.

Carroll, Marie. “Metacognition in the Classroom.” Handbook of Metamemory and Memory. Ed. Dunlosky, John and Robert A. Bjork. New York: Psychology Press, 2008.

Ceci, S., and Bruck, M. (1995). Jeopardy in the courtroom: A scientific analysis of children’s testimony. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Gleitman, Henry, Daniel Reisberg, and James Gross. Psychology – Seventh Edition. Chapter 7: Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Haggbloom, Steven J., et al. “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century.” Review of General Psychology, 2002, Vol. 6, No. 2, 139-152.

Klosterman, Chuck. Sex, drugs, and cocoa puffs: a low culture manifesto. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. & Pickrell, Jacqueline E. (1995). “The formation of false memories.” Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. False memories – Lost in a shopping mall. Video Clip. 1992. YouTube. October 2009 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQr_IJvYzbA>.

Orwell, George. 1984. 1949. Signet Classics, 1950.

Simons, Daniel J. and Christopher F. Chabris. Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events.

Wade, K.A., Garry, M. Read, J.D., & Lindsay, D.S. (2002). “A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories.” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9, 597-603.

Works Consulted

Loftus, Elizabeth F. (2003). “Make-Believe Memories.” American Psychologist, 58(11), 867-873.

New Philosophies of Learning
. Ed. Cigman, Ruth, and Andrew Davis. Wiley-Blackwell Publications, 2009.

Laster, Madlon T. Teach the Way the Brain Learns – Curriculum Themes Build Neuron Networks. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.


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