8.12 Schacter’s Seven Memory Distortions
We all experience it. We call it forgetfulness, a senior moment, a brain fart, or a confused memory. Memory problems come in a variety of forms, but they all frustrate us when they appear. We want to believe we remember everything from our lives and remember them perfectly, but memory has a funny way of not being as dependable as we think it is. In his book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel Schacter identifies seven types of memory problems that occur in our daily lives, separating them into two categories, as we will see below.
The first three errors, what Schacter calls the ”sins of omission” are all related to forgetting. These three are transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking. A mnemonic device to remember these three, and that they are linked to forgetting, is the phrase ”The Amnesiac Brain,” with the first letter of each word corresponding to one of the omissions. Let’s look at what each one does and how it interferes with our memory.
This memory problem refers to how memory, or the details of a memory, tend to become inaccessible over time. If you think about one of your strongest memories from childhood, you might realize that some details are missing. Can you name everyone who was present at that time? Do you remember all the conversations verbatim?
This is a perfectly normal part of aging. Details we don’t find important or memories we don’t access tend to disappear.
This is a memory problem many of us have experienced from time to time, while individuals with attention deficit disorder may experience it frequently. This problem occurs when mental attention and memory formation or memory retrieval interact. Basically, attention issues can cause improper encoding, the process involved in memory formation, or distract us during retrieval so we overlook the information we wanted to recall. Ever lose your keys?
In this memory issue, the information we want exists and we know we know it. Unfortunately, we just can’t seem to access it at the time we want it. If you’ve ever said ”It’s on the tip of my tongue!” then you’ve experienced this problem.
The second group of Schacter’s memory problems is deemed the ”sins of commission.” This is because they relate to memories that are definitely present but either include incorrect information or they intrude on a person, almost with a will of their own. They are suggestibility, bias, misattribution, and persistence. These also can be remembered by using a mnemonic trick, the phrase ”Some Bad Memory Problems.” These problems can create serious legal issues during testimony or torment an individual with horrible memories. Let’s examine what they do.
This memory problem reveals how vulnerable our perception of reality can be. When questioned about an event in our memory, whether recent or in the distant past, we can be tricked into remembering details that are blatantly wrong. Leading questions can cause people to add details not originally present, or we can be outright manipulated to incorporate details that never existed.
In one episode of the TV show, ”Derren Brown’s Trick of the Mind”, the host asked actor Simon Pegg to write down what he most wants for his birthday. He then talks with Pegg a week later, dropping subtle hints to get him thinking about a BMX bike and associating it with what he really wants. Simon is thrilled when Derren gives him a red BMX bike, saying it’s what he always wanted, but he is shocked to open the envelope to find that he actually wrote that he wanted a leather jacket.
If you’ve ever looked back at your interaction with someone and said, ”I had a feeling all along that they…” you were probably experiencing bias in your memory. Bias involves distortions of our memory caused by new information about the subject. You see it in the media when reporters talk to the family or neighbors of a serial killer or someone who committed an equally shocking crime. They often say they had no clue, but later on, they begin to talk about details they thought were strange or say that they should have known based on certain details. They may even claim they were never really comfortable around that person when, in fact, they had a perfectly normal interaction with that person until they learned of the crimes.
Ever go to a friend to tell him something, just to have him respond that he was the person who told you in the first place? Well, that’s misattribution, the memory error that causes you to remember the source of information incorrectly or convinces you that you personally witnessed something when you only heard about it later.
This memory problem does not involve misremembered information, and it is quite the opposite of omission-related problems. In persistence, memories return without the person wanting to experience them. For some of us, this means dwelling on embarrassing or unpleasant memories when we’re trying to wind down at the end of the day. For individuals affected by PTSD, however, the persistence of traumatic memories is a debilitating torment.
As you can see, we experience a number of these memory problems on a regular basis. Among the omission category of lost memories we have transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking, with the mnemonic device of ”The Amnesiac Brain” to remember them.
The commission category of faulty or intrusive memories includes suggestibility, bias, misattribution, and persistence. These are memorable through the mnemonic device ”Some Bad Memory Problems” to hint that the memories exist but there is something wrong with the information or the methods of recall.