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How the Memory Works

October 23, 2019

Do you believe that recalling a memory is like watching a movie, and that it’s an accurate rendition of a past event?  That’s the old concept of memory recall.  It’s an illusion, one that’s created by your mind.

There’s now a quite different concept of memory.  Most of it comes from the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a notable researcher on human memory.

Memories are mutable, meaning that they can be changed, and that fake memories can be introduced.  They still seem real and complete, thanks to the illusion.

Past incidents that we remember are stored as a series of fragments in our brain.  This new idea means that we cannot discover new details by concentrating on a memory: the information is simply not there.  I saw this happen in a detective story that I watched.  The detective asked a witness to review her memory of a visit to a tailor shop, and tell him if a pair of shears was hanging on a peg on the wall.  That’s the old movie concept.  It’s impossible.

When we recall a past incident, our mind accesses the fragments.  We fill in the gaps from our general knowledge, from our understanding of how the world works.  This is an illusion that seems accurate and logical, because our mind makes it so.  In reality, memories are always reconstructed.  Memories are also unreliable, because they are reconstructed from fragments.

When we cease recalling the incident, the fragments are stored anew in our brain.  It’s easy for memories to be altered or for false memories to be implanted.  Because we recall a previous memory, memories can change with each recall.  Memories can even disappear.  This happens if we are somehow prevented from storing the fragments.

Experiencing reality works just like recalling a memory.  Like a memory, it’s an incomplete record of reality.  You can’t see behind your back, for example.  Again, we fill in the gaps from our general knowledge.  Our mind makes reality seem real.


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