Sharing photos may subtly change how we remember

When we’re hunting for the perfect Instagram shot, we’re not listening, we’re not smelling, we’re not always paying attention to the beautiful, complex minutiae that make up the moment. 

Powerful experiences in the real world are immersive and often engage all the senses. On your last vacation, can you remember what the wind felt like on your back? Do you remember what was going on internally: Were you thrilled, excited, or scared? When you look back on the Instagram photos from the trip, will you remember what a dinner tasted like, or just that it was pretty? 

Brian Resnick writing in Vox

Memories are Overrated

A comment I heard from a member of the audience after a lecture illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing memories from experiences. He told of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending “ruined the whole experience.” But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experience itself was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. My questioner had assigned the entire episode a failing grade because it had ended very badly, but that grade effectively ignored 40 minutes of musical bliss. Does the actual experience count for nothing?

Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keep score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.

We have strong preferences about the duration of our experiences of pain and pleasure. We want pain to be brief and pleasure to last. But our memory (represents) the most intense moments of an episode of pain or pleasure and the feelings when the episode was at its end. A memory that neglects duration will not serve our preferences for long pleasure and short pains.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

A learning strategy that has shown clear results

Retrieval practice sometimes (shows) effects some 50 percent more than other forms of learning. In one study, one group of subjects read a passage four times. A second group read the passage just one time, but then the same group practiced recalling the passage three times.

But when the researchers followed up with both groups a few days later, the group that had practiced recalling the passage learned significantly more. In other words, subjects who tried to recall the information instead of rereading it showed far more expertise.

What’s important about retrieval practice is that people take steps to recall what they know. They ask themselves questions about their knowledge, making sure that it can be produced.

More concretely, retrieval practice isn’t like a multiple-choice test, which has people choose from a few answers, or even a Scrabble game, where you hunt in your memory for a high-point word. Retrieval practice is more like writing a five-sentence essay in your head: You’re recalling the idea and summarizing it in a way that makes sense.

As psychologist Bob Bjork told me, “The act of retrieving information from our memories is a powerful learning event.”

Ulrich Boser, Learn Better

the Past vs. Possibilities

When I encounter a $2.89 cup of coffee, it’s all too easy for me to recall what I paid for coffee the day before and not so easy for me to imagine all the other things I might buy with my money.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only questions I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction. If an international bean embargo suddenly caused the price of coffee to skyrocket to $10,000 per cup, then the only question I would need to ask myself is:

“What else can I do with ten thousand dollars, and will it bring me more or less satisfaction than a cup of coffee?”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

What Your Childhood Memories tell you about yourself

A counselor once told me that our memories work something like a cheerleader's megaphone-only in reverse. The opening is wide but there is not enough room for very many memories to crawl through the tube to come out at other end and stick in our heads. So we unconsciously pick the memories we hang onto. This is why he suggested I try to recall my earliest memory tied to a strong emotion. It would tell me something about myself.

At the age of five or so, I walked with my grandfather to a playground near his home. The road was tarred but not paved. I was looking down at the rough surface when I spotted a $5 bill. I remember gleefully looking up at my grandfather and proudly showing it to him. He offered an approving nod.

My counselor guessed that choosing to keep this memory might speak of my closeness to my grandparents and optimism. The road may be rough, but if you keep your eyes open, you'll discover wonderful surprises-and there is joy in sharing them.

The very fact I choose to remember talking to my counselor about this story, out of the many hours that we chatted, could say as much about me as remembering that story does itself.

Say, what's your youngest memory tied to a strong emotion? What does it say about you?

Stephen Goforth

Prone to distortions

"By asking someone to repeat a story over and over again, essentially you start to see the story unravel," criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown explained in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

Those who say they have lived through trauma, however, are sometimes unable to articulate a coherent narrative owing to the brain's tendency to zero-in on only the most essential elements of what happened.

In general, our episodic memories are "prone to distortions" because they are, in essence, a "reconstruction" of events assembled from building blocks stored throughout the brain. The more we recall any single thing, the greater the chance becomes that we'll remove, or even insert, a block that's not supposed to be there.

A variety of influences can increase the probability that a recollection will contain erroneous bits. Decades of research by renowned American cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, for example, has shown that simple, well-crafted linguistic prompts can easily lead someone to unknowingly insert or omit false details into the retelling of a story.

That's not to say all memories contain inaccuracies. In fact, generally speaking, the human brain does an extraordinary job of encoding countless experiences every day.

But it would be too overwhelming to retain all of the information we take in throughout our lives. Research suggests that while we sleep, our brains whittle down experiences — not just traumatic ones — into their most useful parts to make more room, like freeing-up space on a hard drive.

More than a dozen universities participated in a survey that asked 2,100 Americans from across the U.S. about their memories of Sept. 11, one, three and 10 years after the attacks. When all was said and done, 40 per cent of participants told stories notably different than the one that emerged from their original answers. Interestingly as time passed, those whose answers changed significantly did not become less confident about the accuracy of their stories. The study is part of a huge body of evidence pointing to the reality that memory is malleable, vulnerable to the curious nature of our own neurobiology.

That doesn't mean we should be distrust it, says Simons, but rather, we should appreciate its limits.

Lucas Powers writing for CBC News


How we create our own false memories

Some witnesses to crimes who are struggling to recall them are instructed to let their minds roam freely, to generate whatever comes to mind, even if it is a guess. However, the act of guessing about possible events causes people to provide their own misinformation, which, if left uncorrected, they may later come to retrieve as memories.

Suppose the police interview a witness shortly after a crime, showing pictures of possible suspects. Time passes, but eventually the police nab a suspect, one whose picture has been viewed by the witness. If the witness is now asked to view a lineup, he may mistakenly remember one of the suspects whose photo he saw as having been present at the crime.

We cannot remember every aspect of an event, so we remember those elements that have the greatest emotional significance for us, and we fill in the gaps with details of our own that are consistent with our narrative but maybe wrong.

Imagination inflation refers to the tendency of people who, when asked to imagine an event vividly, will sometimes begin to believe, when asked about it later, that the event actually occurred. Adults who ask "Did you ever break a window with your hand?" Were more likely on a later life inventory to report that they believe this event occurred during their lifetimes. It seems that asking the question led them to imagine the event, and the act of having imagined it had the effect, later, of making them more likely to think it had occurred (relative to other group answer the question not having previously imagined it occurring).

Accounts that sound familiar can create a feeling the feeling of knowing and be mistaken for true. This is one reason that political or advertising claims that are not factual but repeated can gain traction with the public, particularly if they have emotional resonance. Something you once heard that you hurt again heard it again later carries a warmth of familiarity that can be mistaken for memory, a shred of something you once knew and cannot quite place but are inclined to believe. In the world propaganda, this is called "the big lie" technique-even a big lie told repeatedly can come to be accepted as truth.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Ambiguity and narrative

The discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrariness is equally powerful, or more so, in our need for a rational understanding of our lives. We strive to fit the events of our lives into a coherent story that accounts for our circumstances, the things that follow us, and the choices we make. Each of us has a different narrative that has many threads woven into it from our shared culture and experience of being human, as well as many distinct threads that explain the singular events of one's personal past. All these experiences influence what comes to mind in a current situation and the narrative through which you make sense of it: why nobody in my family attended college until me. Why my father never made a fortune in business. Why I'd never want to work in a corporation, or, maybe, why I would never want to work for myself. We gravitate to the narratives that best explain our emotions. In this way, narrative and memory become one. The memories we organize meaningfully become those that are better remembered. Narrative provides not only meaning but also a mental framework for imbuing future experiences andinformation with meaning, in effort shaping new memories to fit our establish constructs of the world and ourselves. The narrative of memory becomes central to our intuitions regarding the judgments we make and the actions we take. Because memory is a shape-shifter, reconciling the competing demands of emotions, suggestions, and narrative, it serves you well to stay open to the fallibility of your certainties: even your most cherished memories may not represent events in the exact way they occurred.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning