Does Your Memory Have More Holes Than Swiss Cheese?

15 Nov 2012

Does Your Memory Have More Holes Than Swiss Cheese?

Your memory may not be a reliable as you think

I rely on my memory for lots of things. For other things I do a double check.

vintage image: Does your memory have more holes than Swiss cheese?

So, I checked my bag before I left for the appointment at 11.00 am.
Mobile – check, diary – check, pen etc. All present and correct, Sar!

I got to my appointment early

The client didn’t arrive.
“Are you using the room today?” The question, by the receptionist was posed in a surprised tone.
I replied that I was.
“I thought it was tomorrow, Friday.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s today. But I’ll just check my diary.”

Like most people I do rely on my memory

Probably like you, I totally take it for granted. And why wouldn’t you? After all it seems to have stood you in good stead for the most part.

Memory gives you time to do new things

Everyday activities such as dressing yourself, making toast, cleaning your teeth and having a shower rely on your memory. If this were not so, you would have to relearn everything – every day. Knowing where you live, recognising your family and friends, knowing where you work, what you do and who you do it with, are critical functions of memory.

But how reliable is your memory really?

People are often adamant that what they see or experience is ‘the truth’. They have an association with an event that is forever embedded in their memory. Yet memory itself is not as reliable as you might think.

Why do I say this?

First of all let’s examine the word. Member means a part, an element or a component of something. Such as a member of the audience, an arm is a body member. To dis-member something means to pull it apart or disjoint it. To re-member means to put something back together.

And therein lies a clue.

When you ‘re-member’ something, you essentially re-create or re-collect the elements of the experience in your mind. Each act of recreating the event changes it in some way. So the original memory gets changed over time and according to how many times you’ve ‘re-membered’ it.

It is also filtered.

What you remember is also filtered by your interests, beliefs and values.

Here’s an example; I used to work with a group of electrical supply engineers. Sometimes I’d have to go out to a job with one of them. They would usually drive.

While I would admire the view or pass comment on something, they were completely obsessed with where the electrical transformers were located, how the spans of cable were hung and “who the hell put that #%$* pole up!” They were almost completely oblivious to the things I was paying attention to, or even the road for that matter – making me an extremely nervous passenger!

Let’s just add another layer

You won’t remember every little detail of an event. It’s virtually impossible because in most situations there are literally millions of bits of information available for you to pay attention to (for example, the variety of colours, shades, shadows, sounds etc). If you tried to pay attention to them all you’d go mad!

So what you see will be guided by what you select to focus on

There’s a famous selective attention test that you may have seen where a group of people are shown a video of a basketball game. They are instructed to count the number of passes made by the team in white. Here’s the one minute video if you haven’t already seen it and would like to test yourself.

Christopher Chabris, co-designer of the experiment explains the set up and implications of the experiment in a video interview.

Watch the video to the end (it’s only 5 minutes) and then check if you noticed the changes he mentions at the end.

In essence, what both these videos illustrate is that:

while your attention is guided in one direction, you may well fail to notice other critical information.

Have you ever been somewhere and got lost on the way back home?

To get home you must not only memorise where you live, but you have to also memorise how to get there from your end location. If you don’t memorise how to get there very well, you’ll likely find you are lost. In other words, what you see around you does not match up with your memory of the way to get home.

But you can improve your memory

If you make the same trip a few times, however, your memory of how to get home becomes strengthened through the repetition. Yet you will still miss a lot of the information that available to you, simply because your intention is to get home – not to notice every detail along the way. So you’re more likely to observe key landmarks that remind you of where to go next, e.g, ‘I must watch out for the blue house on the corner because that’s where I have to turn left.’

So how accurate is your memory?

By now, I hope you’re at least contemplating the accuracy of your own memory! You may have already realised that ‘Truth’ is personal and not universal. We all have our own ‘truth’.

If you’ve ever discussed past events with family members or friends, you’ve probably come across the phenomena of each having different memories of the same event – and perhaps even arguing about who was ‘right’. Or maybe you remember an incident and your siblings have no recollection of it at all! I wonder how many arguments result from these re-constructed memories?

We all have our own memories

The point is, that every individual has his or her own memories, even of shared experiences. And it’s really pointless arguing over which details are accurate. No-one is going to win an argument like that. Just agree that you’ve re-membered it in different ways.

I’d remembered the appointment was for Thursday

I, as much as anyone should know the nature of memory, especially as I was writing about it before I left home! I got out my diary and checked the appointment.
Sure enough, the booking was for Friday.
“Hmm, all dressed up and nowhere to go?”
“Yep!! – see you tomorrow – again”

  • Memory allows you to learn new stuff; you don’t have to keep re-membering what you already know.
  • Memory is prone to change the more you ‘re-member’ it.
  • Memory is personal, not universal.
  • It’s not really useful to argue about something based on your memories of it.