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What I learned – The Seven Sins of Memory

December 11, 2011

The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel L. Schacter

i forgot

Crystal gave me this book as an early Christmas present (she can never wait :P) and I just finished it so I thought I’d tell you about what I learned. I think this is what I will do for nonfiction books from now on. Basically, nothing will be different but I’ll stick the “What I learned” in the title so you can tell it isn’t really a review. Avoid if you plan on reading the book and don’t want knowledge spoilers but stick around if you want to learn some stuff and don’t have time for many nonfiction books!

So this Schacter guy seems to be somewhat of a fancypants: he’s the Chair of Harvard’s Psychology Department. Neato. He talks about how there are seven fundamental types of faults in our memories in this book: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. In the final chapter he explains why these are most likely just by-products of other processes and are actually important for our brains to function properly even though they will cause minor or even major annoyances from time to time.

1. Transience
This is when your memories slowly fade over time. This happens because you aren’t reminding yourself about these memories enough and strengthening the connections in your brain. The older you get, the more this is a problem.

Transience has its uses, though. Memories that aren’t being used are surely taking up space and would waste time if they were recalled when they weren’t relevant. Thus, we don’t remember things that our brains find to be unimportant or no longer useful.

2. Absent-mindedness
This occurs when our thoughts aren’t properly encoded in our brains in the first place so trying to retrieve the memory later is useless. This happens when we are pre-occupied doing something else and place our glasses/book/keys somewhere. We never formed a memory of where we placed the object because we were busy thinking about other things.

3. Blocking
Tip-of-the-tongue is a major proponent of this. Interesting fact: many, many languages use this tongue metaphor! Blocking is when the memory is definitely still encoded somewhere in your brain but you are unable to retrieve it momentarily. There are normally certain cues that would cause you to remember it fully. This occurs most often on people’s names but can happen on any word. Names are most frequent because there aren’t any synonyms to draw from, and there aren’t really any cues to remind you. If I was named TallGuy then maybe it would be easier but I’m Arthur so good luck remembering that. I’m not explaining this very well. Um… maybe you should read the book for this one.

4. Misattribution
Mixed up and false memories! This is when your memories get jumbled so the who, when, and wheres get mixed up but also when your memory is just made up! This is where the book started to scare me in relation to eyewitness testimony. If memory is so flimsy, why do we put eyewitness testimony in such high regard? Yikes!

This chapter mentioned deja vu. Sometimes familiarity can be mistaken for memory of something that never happened.

Sometimes it is the source of the knowledge that is mistaken. Did you hear it from a trustworthy source? Did you witness it yourself? Did you make it up? Who knows?

This chapter was fascinating and covered a wide variety of stuff that I can’t possibly hope to cover here.

5. Suggestibility
We are incredibly weak to suggestion. Open-ended questions are best! Any specifics in a question can bias answers. Say car crash instead of car accident and people might report a more violent impact. This was another chapter that was terrifying for court cases. All it takes is a little nudging and people could say practically anything!

6. Bias
There are a lot of different biases in our memories. Consistency bias makes us think the past was like the present. If we are in a lot of pain right now, we report our pains being stronger in the past as well. This is a problem in marriages: Once the honeymoon is over there is generally a drop in satisfaction levels and if the consistency bias is in effect, even the honeymoon will be tainted! 😦

Hindsight bias is one that you might be more familiar with. Ask someone who they think is going to win a sporting event or a war or something ahead of time and also after the finale. They will report a bias to the winner as if it was inevitable in the second scenario when you want them to think back to what they thought before the event.

Egocentric biases cause us to exaggerate how important we are. Most people will describe themselves as above average but obviously this can’t really be true. In memory, this causes us to remember ourselves getting better grades than we actually did in school and various other things.

Then there are good ol’ stereotypes. Yay.

7. Persistence
One of the scary ones, persistence is the process where memories we want to forget just never want to leave us alone. Evolutionarily, this would have been useful for reminding us against something life-threatening but it can cause daily annoyance and lead to severe depression in some individuals. Persistence occurs because of the strong emotions involved. Emotions are incredibly good at improving memory which is super handy most of the time but kinda scary in others.


I learned a lot from this book but, of course, I couldn’t remember it all (har har). I find brains incredibly fascinating. We can talk all we want about memories being encoded and retrieved but what exactly is going on? How does it all work? I know there are neurons zipping around making connections and such but how the heck does that make a memory. It is even stranger for me considering that I am most certainly a materialist. I’m definitely a layman in regards to this stuff but I don’t believe in spirits, soul, or some extra mind stuff floating around in the ether or whatever. It’s just brains to me! So how is all this information stored in an accessible manner? Beats me!

In conclusion, I’d like to mention that brains are weird.



From → Books, nonfiction

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