Do you think your memory is what it appears to be?
Have you read the blog about the vivid nature of ‘flashbulb memory’ and how this was referenced to teaching and learning? I am not a blogger, but I thought that I would to add the perspective and to the discussion about memory.
In the original @TeacherToolkit blogpost on memory, there was a brief mention of school-based autobiographical memory; it reminded me of a recent incident in which someone described to me in comprehensive detail, an embarrassing incident that happened to her when she was at school twenty-five years ago. She concluded by saying,
“I remember it as if it was yesterday”.
But did she?
There is an increasing body of evidence that highlights how memory is not an infallible archive of our life experiences. We like to think that our memory consists of events and experiences that we recollect and reliably reproduce. Yet, our memories are notoriously unreliable in terms of their accuracy. There is evidence that indicates that we construct and reconstruct what we think happened to us in the past rather than retrieve and recall exactly what did happen. The proposition here is that our memory is simply a series of narratives.
Remembering is a process that involves different systems in your brain constantly communicating with each other. When you remember something your memory is susceptible to errors. Some aspects of what you remember can be amplified and others can be edited: you can misremember and you can over-remember. It is an obvious point to make – but – your memory is also influenced by your personal biases, beliefs, values and emotions.
If our memories are narratives then this explains why they can easily be manipulated and distorted. For example, research highlights how changing the wording of a question can alter the memory of eyewitnesses when they are asked to recount what happened during an accident they recently encountered. The body language of the person interviewing an eyewitness can also influence what the eyewitness remembers and how they describe it. When eyewitnesses close their eyes to try to remember what they experienced they will do so more accurately than they do with their eyes open.
Unreliable and False?
We also know that memories are so unreliable that they can even be completely false. People can be confident, and fervently assert, that something definitely happened to them when it did not happen to them at all. This is mainly because we are all suggestible to varying degrees. Research in the field of false memories has shown that, through subtle and not so subtle, methods of suggestion false memories can be implanted. Adults can confidently recall and describe a hot-air balloon ride they took part in as a child even though they had never been in a hot-air balloon.
The confidence that many people have about a memory being accurate is not an indicator of the accuracy of the memory. Memory is malleable. When we describe incidents that have happened to us years ago we often say,
” I remember it as if it was yesterday”.
The problem is, we don’t.
How do you think this could apply in the context of learning and in the classroom? And if any? Is there a place in the curriculum to teach students to understand the basic principles of memory to aid their own learning?
If readers are interested in research references relating to the unreliable nature of memory, here are a few classics;
- Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.
- Sheen, M., Kemp, S., & Rubin, D. (2001). Twins dispute memory ownership: A new false memory phenomenon. Memory & Cognition, 29, 779-788.
- 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 & Review, 9, 597–603.
- Yuille, J. C., & Cutshall, J. L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71(2), 291.