Sharing the science of psychology can be challenging because most people believe themselves to be experts, simply by way of being a human. Furthermore, people tend to assume that their experience of reality (e.g., thoughts, interpretations, sense of right/wrong) is true and without fault or bias. This is known as naïve realism, or the assumption that our version of reality is an accurate depiction of objective “truth.”
Unfortunately, decades of research in social psychology demonstrate that, while mostly efficient and functional, human cognition is beset with errors and biases, many of which are implicit or beyond awareness . One of the most important facets of my teachings as a psychologist is to encourage people to skeptically examine their own assumptions and identify sources of bias.
Nowhere else does human cognition appear more murky than the processes of memory. We might imagine that memory is just like a file saved to the human hard drive. However, human cognition is way less reliable than your computer. Here are some of the many ways our memories might fail us.
- First, the initial act of saving the file is imperfect, because humans are incapable of entirely capturing (or even noticing) every detail of a given moment. If you don’t believe this statement, try to draw every single detail of a U.S. Dollar on a piece of paper, from memory. Chances are, you will make some mistakes. You might misplace an icon/word, or forget it completely. This is because, while you have probably seen many dollar bills, chances are, you only paid attention to the most basic characteristics of the dollar. Memory and attention are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, our ability to pay attention is increasingly strained. Recent studies suggest that posting pictures on social media can negatively impact memory, perhaps because we are offloading or delegating the cognitive work of encoding memory onto the phone (much like saving a file on an external hard drive) .
- Second, memories can be altered or distorted in the process of recall/retrieval . Imagine that your brain/computer has a virus that can permanently change the file of a memory every time you open it. Maybe some small, insignificant detail gets deleted or added or moved. Maybe the meaning of the memory changes completely, because it is now remembered from an entirely new perspective. Think about how you might tell the story of being stuck in traffic after having a really stressful day. Suddenly this slight stressor can become the worst thing that ever happened to you! On the other hand, sometimes we look back at something that was hurtful in the past, with a new appreciation for what we learned, thereby mollifying the impact left behind by initial memory.
- Third, memory can be influenced by suggestion or outside input. Memory is so vulnerable. We can make mistakes about the source of our memories. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we internalize or adopt a detail we heard or read or saw in a movie as our very own. Eyewitness testimony can be influenced by the way a question is posed, and even nonverbal cues can lead people to change how they recall a memory . The highly suggestible nature of memory can leave people vulnerable to believing entirely false memories . False memories are a lot more common than we would believe. In fact, one recent study found that about 40% of Americans reported having a memory at the scientifically improbable age of 2 years old or younger .
- Finally, memory often declines with age, although the effects of memory decline can vary from person to person, and can be influenced by situational and genetic factors .
Human memory, like all cognition, is biased. Our perception of reality can and should be questioned from time to time. Memories can be distorted and unreal. As a teenager, I struggled with body image issues. I was hyper-aware of my flaws, to the point of exaggeration. For the longest time, I remembered my adolescence as a cringingly awkward time spent in an objectively dreadful body. But looking back at photos now, after years of practicing self-acceptance and self-compassion, I see the beauty in that young girl, and unplanned elegance in the way those years played out.
I spend a lot of time with my coaching clients creating more intentional language when talking about the past, because how we talk about our past can absolutely affect how we remember it. It is possible to make peace with the past, and so much of it has to do with how we choose to remember it.
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