Why Is Your Memory Unreliable?

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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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.

This is a guest post by Psychologist, Dr. Tim O’Brien who last worked in Psychology and Human Development at .

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?

shutterstock_181673777 Senior With Sinusitis woman memory

Image: Shutterstock

The Evidence:

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.

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Image: Shutterstock

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?


Written by Tim O’Brien (@Doctob) and edited and posted by @TeacherToolkit.

Further Reading:

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.


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2 thoughts on “Why Is Your Memory Unreliable?

  1. The late William Glasser always talked about the ‘pictures in our head or brain’ and how they impact our lives so very much. I believe it’s those pictures that also heavily impact our memory recall. I find fascinating how the studies of recall totally miss an ‘obvious’ portion of the scene being observed – in part at least due to the expectations of / instructions to the observers – the ones that set the pictures…

  2. Interesting article, I have no doubt that when we try to remember an event what we perceive as a memory is simply the brain re-imagining the sequence of events, and of course details can be left out or perhaps added each time the memory is replayed – these errors are then reinforced on subsequent recalls.

    There is a lot of interesting material about how we learn facts and how our memories work – none of which was taught in school in my day, and probably still isn’t. There are many interesting books by memory champions (eg http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00H145OMW?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_d_detailpage_o01_ – there are many others), all of which deal with using different techniques to learn facts and figures. The academic research into memory and learning is dealt with nicely in a literature review: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/journals/pspi/learning-techniques.html

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