Yesterday when I logged into my Facebook account, it showed a picture I had posted six years back. In the frame, I was having lunch with an old school friend.
It brought a smile on my face.
Interestingly, I had completely forgotten about the lunch. I just couldn’t remember being present when that picture was taken. My brain had conveniently erased that incident from memory.
I am sure it happens to others too. Also, Facebook knows it, so they introduced this feature. Bringing back those lost memories creates a pleasant experience which isn’t much different from the one when you find money in your old pant pockets.
How would it be if we never forgot anything? Why does our brain choose to remember something and spaces out on others? Is there an evolutionary reason behind this behavioural quirk? Let’s explore these questions today.
In 2005, Deb Roy and Rupal Patel, a scientist couple from MIT designed a system called “Total Recall.” It was a set up to record (audio and video) everything in their lives starting from the day they brought home their newborn son.
The couple wanted to discover the patterns in how a child learns the language. So Deb and Rupal installed cameras and microphones in every room and stored all the recordings in a hard disk. They would later analysed the data.
The experiment lasted for two years and, as expected, it revealed many useful insights about various stages in language development of a child. However, what made this experiment strikingly remarkable was an array of serendipitous discoveries about the human brain.
Among those discoveries, the most interesting was the one about how human memories work. For example, when Deb recalled the day his son started walking, after watching the video recording, he was surprised to find out that he had utterly misremembered the event.
“I originally remembered it being a sunny morning, my wife in the kitchen,” he says. “And when we finally got the video it was not a sunny morning, it was evening; and it was not my wife in the kitchen, it was my mother.”
False memories are so common that you’ve certainly experienced them.
For example, you might remember a childhood event in some detail and learn later that it happened to your sibling, not you. A significant part of human memories is mostly fiction. We form false memories quite easily.
The above story about MIT scientists comes from Clive Thompson’s book So let’s explore why our brain distorts certain events before storing them in form of memories.
This story about MIT scientists comes from Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think. So let’s explore why our brain distorts certain events before storing them in the form of memories.
Metamorphosis of a Memory
When we remember an event, it’s not clear if we’re remembering it correctly. This happens because our brain is not very accurate in storing the specific details. There is plenty of science to support the idea of selective memory.
A human brain is a meaning-making machine. It’s always optimizing and conserving energy by extracting the gist of anything.
So when you read a book or watch a movie or for that matter observe something live, our brain immediately tries to cull out the meaning of what we see.
For one, this meaning is very personal. It’s a product of our predetermined biases, i.e., what makes sense to us and how it fits into our overall picture of the world. So any information that conflicts with this subjective interpretation is discarded by our grey cells.
In other words, our minds are drawn to what feels true, not what’s necessarily so.
Storing the details selectively is one thing but what’s more intriguing is the way our mind fills the gaps between those details.
“Our mind is extremely resourceful and creative not only in filling the gaps in our memories,” writes Thompson, “but distorting and rebuilding the memories in such a way that a coherent story is formed which is an energy saving mechanism of our brains to reduce the cognitive load in remembering difficult stories.”
Memory is not like pulling a sheet from a filing cabinet and retrieving a precise copy of the event about a specific event. Memory isn’t passive; it’s active and constantly evolving.
Every time you pull out a piece of information from memory, you get back the gist which has a lot of missing details. To comprehend that piece of memory your brain regenerates some part of it on the fly by imaginatively filling in the missing details with stuff that seems plausible, whether or not it’s actually what happened.
This reconstruction of any piece of memory happens not just once, but every time we access it. So the next time we remember it, we’re pulling up false details; maybe we’re even adding new errors with each act of recall. Presence of this feedback loop in memory reconsolidation compounds the problem over time.
“There’s a reason why we call it ‘re-membering’,” argues Thompson, “we reassemble the past like Frankenstein assembling a body out of parts. That’s why Deb Roy was so stunned to look into his TotalRecall system and realize that he’d mentally mangled the ‘details of his son’s first steps.’”
Here’s a fascinating example which validates the theory of ‘Memory being active and constantly changing’ –
In 1962, the psychologist Daniel Offer asked a group of fourteen-year-old boys questions about significant aspects of their lives. When he hunted them down thirty-four years later and asked them to think back on their teenage years and answer precisely the same questions, their answers were remarkably different. As teenagers, 70 percent said religion was helpful to them; in their forties, only 26 percent recalled that. Fully 82 percent of the teenagers said their parents used corporal punishment, but three decades later, only one third recalled their parents hitting them. Over time, the men had slowly revised their memories, changing them to suit the ongoing shifts in their personalities, or what’s called hindsight bias. If you become less religious as an adult, you might start thinking that’s how you were as a child, too.
So when someone makes a claim based on his or her ‘own personal experience’, you have to take that with a pinch of salt.
The Curse of Perfect Memory
There’s a story of a young boy who after discovered, after suffering a head injury, that he had developed a perfect memory. He could recall every detail with 100 percent accuracy even after several years of what he had read, seen or heard. There’s a name for this disorder – the condition of being unable to forget – hyperthymesia. A cool mental defect, right?
Scientists argue that if we remembered every single detail of everything, we won’t be able to make sense of anything.
That’s what happened with the boy. His flawless memory made him miserable. The burden of so much memory became oppressive.
Did perfect memory make him smarter? Far from it.
Reading became an excruciatingly frustrating activity because individual words would continuously trigger vivid memories that disrupted his attention.
Imagine you’re reading something on the laptop and as your eyes move through the words, pop-ups flash on your mental screen for every word describing not only the meaning of the word but also a sequence of other information/trivia related to it.
Wouldn’t that be extremely frustrating?
Experiencing Self Vs Remembering Self
Memories shape decisions. Unfortunately, memories, as we have seen, can be wrong.
This mile-long jump between reality and our false memory of it distorts our narrative about life. It determines the quality of our lives and how happy, sad or satisfied we feel about our existence.
Daniel Kahneman is the most celebrated behavioural scientist of this generation. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he explains how the human experience of pain and pleasure is fundamentally flawed because of the presence of two conflicting forces in the human psyche – Experiencing Self and Remembering Self.
These two selves are always in a tug of war. This tussle produces systematic and predictable flaws in our memories. Understanding the two selves can reveal important insights about how to design our future experiences to squeeze out maximum juice from them.
The experiencing-self is the one that’s constantly answering the question: How does it feel now?
The remembering self is the one that answers, after the fact (event or experience), the question: How was it, on the whole?
Put simply, experiencing-self derives pain/pleasure from the actual experience itself (in the moment) but remembering-self depends on the memory of the experience.
“Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living,” writes Kahneman, “and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is, therefore, that of the remembering self.”
Which means the remembering self’s version of the experience is what matters more and determines our future decision.
Numerous experiments revealed that for remembering self, the duration of the experience matters less than the intensity of the experience. And the memory of the experience is heavily influenced by how the experience ended.
So a one-hour movie which was great for the first 50 minutes but disappointing in the last 10 minutes, is remembered by our brain on the basis of the last 10 minutes of experience.
Kahneman concludes –
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.
Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion which can wreak havoc when it comes to learning from our past investing mistakes/successes.
Because of narrative fallacy, hindsight bias, and imperfect memory, it’s almost impossible to recall (with 100 percent accuracy) the reasons why we made a decision in the past.
Our brain fools us and presents a distorted picture of the circumstances under which we made the decision which leads to the wrong conclusion about why a stock turned out to be a mistake or success.
So how do you deal with this problem? Here’s a suggestion from Danny Kahneman –
…go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions. And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think.
When you’ve got a decision-making journal, it gives you accurate and honest feedback of what you were thinking at that time. And so there can be situations, by the way, you buy a stock and it goes up, but it goes up for reasons very different than what you thought was going to happen. And having that feedback in a way to almost check yourself periodically is extremely valuable. So that’s, I think, a very inexpensive; it’s actually not super time consuming, but a very, very valuable way of giving yourself essential feedback because our minds won’t do it normally.
To summarize, we tend to remember the things we want to remember and forget the things we’d rather forget. As a result, a significant part of human memories is mostly fiction.
Forgetting may seem like a flaw in the machinery of the human brain but it is a gift rather than a curse. Thompson concludes in his book –
The malleability of memory helps explain why, over decades, we can adopt a surprisingly rewritten account of our lives….By chipping away at what we experience in everyday life, we leave behind a sculpture that’s meaningful to us, even if sometimes it happens to be wrong.
But remember, when it comes to bracing against the downsides of manufactured memory, relying on a short pen (or a small diary) is better than a long (and misleading) memory.