Here’s How Your Memory Really Works

Your brain doesn’t work like a tape recorder. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

What would you be without your memories? How important is your ability to remember the past and to draw on it to inform your next move? I’ll answer for you: It’s right up there with breathing and eating.

One would think that understanding how memory works would be a high priority for all people in all societies, considering memories form the foundation of our personalities and give meaning to our lives.

The truth, however, is that most people, regardless of intelligence or education, know little about memory. A revealing study by research psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris asked people simple questions about memory and then compared their answers with those of experts in memory research. The results show how far removed from reality the public’s beliefs about memory are. For instance, to the question “Is there a ‘video camera’ in your head?” 63 percent of people surveyed strongly agreed or mostly agreed that human memory “works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” None of the experts—zero percent—strongly agreed or mostly agreed that memory works like a video camera.

A post-it note with hand-lettering that says "the memory of my first love"Joleen Zubek & Maria Amador for Reader's Digest

When asked, “Is confident testimony necessarily accurate testimony?” more than a third of people (37 percent) strongly or mostly agreed that “the testimony of one confident eyewitness should be enough evidence to convict a defendant of a crime.” Not one expert used in the study strongly or mostly agreed with this; 93.8 percent strongly disagreed.

So how does memory work? I prefer to describe it as something like an old man sitting by a campfire somewhere deep in your brain. He means well and wants to help, but he doesn’t show you your past like some wizard with a time portal. The best he can do is tell you stories. And like all good storytellers, he edits for impact, efficiency, functionality, and clarity. He tells you what he assumes you need to know.

Sometimes he may even embellish the tale by adding a bit of flavor, accuracy be damned. Or the old man might decide to leave out a few things in order to spare you pain or shame. He also makes honest mistakes—lots and lots of them. Sometimes he just gets confused or sloppy and leaves out something important. He could even include inaccurate information by accident. Maybe that special memory of your first kiss in middle school has been infiltrated with portions of a college experience or a scene from a movie you saw many years ago.

We don’t need to remember every detail about everything.

In other words, memory is associative and constructive—there is no consistent, orderly, or rational sense to it. It’s not like files on a computer hard drive arranged by subject or placed in chronological order. A memory will be tucked away and connected to other memories or concepts in ways that are not necessarily practical or logical. This is why a particular smell or sound may bring up a memory even though it wasn’t important in the original experience. It’s also the reason we can’t always recall in an instant a memory we need, even if it’s there somewhere in our neural jungle. Memories come to us in a way that is similar to how archaeologists and police detectives use bits of information—artifacts and clues—to construct stories about past people and events.

It also helps to remember what memory cannot do. The first and most important lesson is that human memory is not reliable. Not even close. Our memory processes did not evolve to keep accurate and detailed accounts of the events in our lives. The brain is not your personal stenographer or record keeper. You may believe you can replay something from the past, but you can’t. You may see the past crystal clear in your mind, but that’s not personal history you are watching. It’s a docudrama at best. When you remember, your memory tells your brain a story—and much may be lost in transit.

The human brain is still a mysterious universe in many ways, of course. Fortunately, enough has been revealed to offer us some guidance toward wiser and safer navigations through daily life. Your memory is best thought of as helpful input. It’s packaged information sent to help us cope in the present and plan for the future. It is not meant to provide foolproof transcripts or recordings of what really happened. And while this can complicate our lives, it works just fine most of the time. We don’t need to remember every detail about everything. For more than two million years of human existence, we have survived and thrived in large part because our memory worked well enough. Even in our information-soaked, hyperconnected, and fast-changing world, it still does.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest