How Sure Are You About Your Memories?

Written by Max Harms

Image credit: Jörg Schubert

How good is your memory? Can you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? Can you remember the second happiest moment in your life? Can you remember your credit card number? Can you remember what city you were in ten years ago? What about your favorite book ten years ago?

Our memories come connected to a feeling of how accurate they are. I can remember what I ate this morning pretty well, but yesterday's breakfast is more of a blur. Your confidence that a memory is correct is your credence, the belief that something is true. I have a very high credence when I try to remember where I lived ten years ago, but a much lower credence when asked to remember what books I was reading back then.

The scale of credence is the same as the one for probability: 0% to 100%. Ideally, if I have 90% credence in ten memories, I will be misremembering only one of them. Memories in which I have 50% credence will ideally be accurate half the time.

But this is only ideally. As it turns out, we aren't the masters of our brains that we sometimes think we are. In reality most people are too confident in their own memories. Check out the video below for more details:

In the studies referenced in the video, people are made to believe false memories (and even fill in nonexistent details themselves!) by an experimenter, but false memories often occur even outside of the laboratory. Every time you remember something, the memory may change in your brain. Sometimes these changes don't make much difference, but if you rely on your memory too heavily these changes will mess you up sooner or later.

When we think about misremembering, we’re often drawn to simple examples of missing an appointment or forgetting a personal item. These failures are bad, but some of the worst failures of memory are more subtle. Perhaps you misremember what a friend is interested in, and get them a gift that they don’t like (but they are too polite to say so). Perhaps you forget what the weather in your hometown is actually like, and end up moving back only to be disappointed. Or perhaps you misremember something that happened to you, and end up unintentionally telling a falsehood to dozens of people without realizing your error. If it’s found out, it can be not only embarrassing, but can sometimes ruin a career. Remembering something that didn’t happen is often worse than forgetting something that did happen.

Want to avoid being hurt by the limits of your brain? There are several techniques you can use to succeed! The first is to write down or otherwise record things which are important. Your fragile memory is no match for a simple paper and pencil. Next, be skeptical of your own memories and the memories of other people. When you remember something, get in the habit of imagining the opposite. This keeps you from fooling yourself! For instance, if you remember that your cousin Jennifer is in medical school, quickly think “Could I be thinking of some other cousin?” and “Might she have graduated?”

Finally, practice using your memory. Studies show that people who challenge themselves with memory games or puzzles have overall better memories, are better at cognitive tasks like math, and are less likely to develop diseases like Alzheimer’s. The difference in memory between people who challenge themselves and people who don’t grows even larger with age.

Imagine that you have two futures in front of yourself. In one future you mix up memories and become forgetful as the years creep on. This version of yourself flinches away from challenging activities and sticks to routines that cover your mind in cobwebs.

In the other you grow wiser, more experienced, and more skilled with time. This version of you takes the time to explore new places and activities, and as a result your mind stays strong and flexible. The journey to one of these two futures starts today. Where do you want to be headed?

What do you think?

  • Have you ever noticed a false memory, or a time when someone else’s memory didn’t match your own?
  • Have you ever made a serious error because you misremembered something?
  • Are there any tricks that you've developed that help you remember things?

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