Memory isn’t a video

Memory doesn’t record life like a video camera. Instead, it adds associated details and becomes, like Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘a story-telling machine’.

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter“What is human memory?” Manning asked. He gazed at the air as he spoke, as if lecturing an invisible audience – as perhaps he was. “It certainly is not a passive recording mechanism, like a digital disc or a tape. It is more like a story-telling machine. Sensory information is broken down into shards of perception, which are broken down again to be stored as memory fragments. And at night, as the body rests, these fragments are brought out from storage, reassembled and replayed. Each run-through etches them deeper into the brain’s neural structure. And each time a memory is rehearsed or recalled it is elaborated. We may add a little, lose a little, tinker with the logic, fill in sections that have faded, perhaps even conflate disparate events.

“In extreme cases, we refer to this as confabulation. The brain creates and recreates the past, producing, in the end, a version of events that may bear little resemblance to what actually occurred. To first order, I believe it’s true to say that everything I remember is false.”

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The Light of Other Days

‘Memory doesn’t store everything we perceive, but instead takes what we have seen or heard and associates it with what we already know. These associations help us to discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide “retrieval cues” that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of the precision of memory. We cannot easily distinguish between what we recall verbatim and what we construct based on associations and knowledge.’

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

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