Memory Memory & Learning

10 Common Memory Myths


Memory is a fascinating, but hugely misunderstood aspect of our brains. Over the years, popular culture has coloured our understanding of how our memories work and have created a number of long-lasting myths which just aren’t true. Here are the most common memory myths:

1. Hypnosis can retrieve forgotten memories.

Almost every study and piece of evidence shows that not only does hypnosis have no positive impact on memory recall, but it can actually harm a person’s faith in their memories. They may become more confident in memories that may be incredibly inaccurate or influence by the guidance of the hypnotist or therapist.

2. People can repress or forget traumatic memories.

Possibly one of the most common myths is that we can repress and bury damaging and hurtful memories deep in our subconscious. It’s more often the case that people don’t like talking about or reliving these memories, so they just try to ignore them. When they feel safe and confident with a therapist or a person, they may feel ready to disclose the events. The therapist may view this as having unlocked a “repressed” memory.

3. Memories are fixed and don’t change.

Multiple studies have shown that it’s actually quite easy to not only alter existing memories, but plant completely new ones. Even a slight difference in phrasing when asking questions about a memory can change our experience of it. It’s also quite easy, particularly for parents, to implant false memories in a person that the person becomes sure really happened.

4. Memory is infallible like a camera.

Unfortunately, because we are humans our memories, just like our decision-making and judgement are influenced by a multitude of biases and emotions. We remember our own perception of events which could be incomplete or even coloured by misunderstanding. We’ll also attach our own interpretation to events and these interpretations can warp and change the memory. Your interpretation of events as a child would be vastly different to your interpretation as an adult. We don’t notice this and will be SURE that we remembered correctly.

5. Confidence in a memory doesn’t indicate that the memory is reliable.

As explained above, our memories tend to be quite inaccurate and regardless of how a memory has been affected, we’re usually quite confident in our recall. Unfortunately our confidence in a  memory bears no relevance to how accurate that memory is.

6. We forget things gradually over time.

It makes sense that memories will fade over time and become less and less accurate. This is what happens with the rest of our bodies when we age, we get slower and weaker. Our memories however don’t degrade as shown in Pixar’s Inside Out, but the majority of them are forgotten not long after the event occurs. When we sleep, our short-term memories are stored as long-term memories, but not everything that occurs during the day makes the cut. The paradox is that we don’t realise we’ve forgotten something, because we don’t remember experiencing it.

7. People with amnesia forget who they are.

It’s commonly believed that people with amnesia forget their own names and their histories, awakening with a blank slate after an accident. This is a misconception. In reality, people with amnesia usually have no problems remembering their past, but their brains have trouble converting short-term memories into long-term memories. 50 First Dates featuring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore demonstrates this quite well.

8. Memory is a storage centre.

We tend to view our memories as filing cabinets or libraries an organised physical system where our memories are field. While it’s a great analogy to describe something as complex as memory, it’s inaccurate. Memory is actually an electrochemical process which occurs throughout the brain and not in a particular place – memories are actually networks of neurons.

9. Eventually your memory will fill up.

Research has shown that so far humans have shown an unlimited capacity for memory. If there is a memory limit, we haven’t found it yet. Even the closest hypotheses surrounding memory capacity outline that our memory limit is so large that a human could never experience enough in a single lifetime to come close to filling it.

10. Some people just have bad memories.

With the right memory techniques (memory palaces, mnemonics, number systems etc.) and a little practice, even the most forgetful person can supercharge their memory and greatly

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