Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers
By Daniel L. Schacter
By John Glassie
(Wired, June 2001)
We sometimes think of our memories as discrete storage and retrieval tools that we put to work as needed -- or that frequently fail to work. But even the old Saturday Night Live sketch "Mr. Short Term Memory" demonstrated the inextricable relationship between memory and consciousness. ("There's something in my mouth! There's something in my mouth! There's *food* in my mouth!")
In The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Daniel L. Schacter examines real-life memory malfunctions and in the process sheds some light on the nature of the operational mind.
According to Schacter, who is Chairman of Harvard's Department of Psychology, this is the first real inventory of such malfunctions. The most common "sins" of memory of course include the weakening of detailed recollection over time, the absent-minded breakdown between attention and memory, and the tip-of-the-tounge syndrome in which information retrieval gets blocked. ("Nigel, this is my wife ... uh, uh, uh ... Hilda.")
Other problems are the result of more complicated interactions between memory, our sense of self and of the world. Studies prove, for instance, that we have a tremendous tendency to change our recollections of the past to match our present beliefs. And falsely recovered memories of abuse have shown that our memories are highly susceptible to suggestion.
This catalog of failure makes for a pretty fascinating status report on memory research. Neuroimaging technology, extensive experimentation and case studies have given scientists a much better understanding of the process and allowed them to isolate areas of the brain responsible for different database activities.
As it turns out, the filing system is pretty precise. There's the case of "LS" who, after damage to part of his left temporal lobe, could remember everything but proper names. And if your fusiform gyrus goes on the fritz, you may no longer be able to recognize well-known faces.
Putting the brain maps aside, Schacter hypothesizes that common memory malfunctions are actually either evolutionary adaptations or relatively benign by-products of having developed important cognitive abilities. Absent-minded misplacement of car keys occurs, for instance, because we have gained the sophisticated ability to conduct basic activities automatically while thinking higher-order thoughts. Details of our daily life may fade away over time because, he suggests, our efficient systems "record such details only when circumstances warn that they may later be needed."
Indeed, our larger preference for the gist of things over details may stem from our ability to generalize and categorize information, processes Schacter says are "vital to our cognitive function." Even our bias for falsely positive recollections of ourselves may help encourage us to live another day. (Depressed folks tend to have predominantly negative memories.)
Now if someone can just explain how the piece of meat inside our skulls can do any of this stuff in the first place.