Our memories often fail us when we can’t remember simple pieces of information. Remembering someone’s name, forgetting where we kept the house keys, trying to recall an event in our past, or even having repetitive negative memory recall, are examples of how our brain can let us down. Forgetfulness is a flaw that is part of our brain.

The Seven Sins Of Memory (2002), penned by author Daniel Schacter charts out 7 sins of memory, discussing why and how our memories fail us, its workings, shortcomings, and how these seven sins are beneficial.

The seven sins can be attributed to the frailty of our minds. They are:-

1. Transience

Our memories are subject to transience. They fade over time and lose their accuracy.

Case in Point:

  1. A study conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German philosopher in 1885, presented the forgetting curve, showing that memories fade over time. He memorized a list of senseless words and tested himself after nine hours. He inferred that he could not recollect more than 40% of the words, and after a month, he could not remember more than 75%.
  1. After the infamous O.J. Simpson Case in 1995, a Californian research group conducted a study to prove memory transience. Fifteen months on, they asked the research group to give details of when they came to know about the outcome of the trial. Only 50% of the group could accurately describe their whereabouts of when they heard of the acquittal. Moreover, after 3 years, the figures reduced to 30%.

What To Do?

We can use certain techniques to combat the transience of memory. People use many memory strengthening techniques. Mnemonics is one such technique developed by the Greeks. Mnemonics work by associating new data to ideas and concepts that have meaning to us. This helps in remembering decontextualized information like names or numbers that we tend to forget.

Example, to remember the name Lily, one can associate an image of a bunch of lilies in a vase, or imagine how the persons face is shaped like a lily.

The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

2. Absent-Mindedness

The brain encodes all incoming information. Absent-mindedness isn’t a failure of memory, but the fact that one did not pay attention to the information. Which means that either the information was not encoded at all, or was partially encoded.

Additionally, absent-mindedness also occurs when one does not have enough cues to remember the information.

Case in Point:

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, conducted an experiment to show that paying attention to one piece of information results in complete ignorance of any other incoming information.

They showed a video of a basketball match to the research group and asked them to count the number of ball passes in the match. In the middle of the recording, a man wearing a gorilla suit runs into the court and beats his chest. At the end of the video, surprisingly, only 50% could recollect the unusual occurrence of the man.

What To Do?

One can lessen the instances of absent-mindedness by setting cues that are appropriate to the information they wish to remember. For example, setting up reminders on the phone for exercising, or keeping medication pills near the sink to take them in the morning.

3. Blockages

We have all experienced the ‘it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue’ syndrome. Such experiences are not a case of forgetting the information, but merely being blocked by the brain. Blockages in memory happen because the brain doesn’t have enough cues or associated information to recall.

Case in Point:

It is easier to remember a person’s occupation than his name because the brain does not collect enough associated information about proper nouns in general, whereas, an occupation will bring up associated information making it easier to remember. Therefore, it is easier to recall a baker by profession, than remember Baker as the last name of a person.

What To Do?

Creating information association and adding cues to information one wishes to remember proactively will help in reducing blockages and habituate the brain to recall information. For example, to remember the name Ally, one can use images of a dark alley to make associations with the proper noun.

4. Misattribution

Misattribution is probably one of the most dangerous sins of the memory leading to serious implications, most commonly seen in cases of criminal justice. It refers to the syndrome where one incorrectly places one piece of information to something else. 

Case in Point:

In the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, a witness described a second person with the bomber Timothy McVeigh. His description perfectly matched an innocent soldier who had come in the day after, to rent a vehicle with a person who resembled the bomber.

Misattribution takes place because the brain can recall faces better, however, it misses linking other crucial information such as place and time, thereby mixing it with loose memories.

In a recent study based on DNA identification of wrongful conviction, an alarming 90% cases were due to wrong eyewitness identification.

What To Do?

Misattribution can be prevented by using memory cues to remember information. Measures  have been put in place to reduce cases of misattribution in the legal system. Example, the police now do not ask eyewitnesses to identify culprits in a line-up, rather show them pictures one by one, so that they can carefully screen them.

5. Suggestibility

Memories have an inherent suggestible nature. This implies that our memory isn’t as reliable as we think it is. It tends to fill in the details based on general information. Memory often relies on suggestibility to complete the entire story.

Case in Point:

Dutch psychologists interviewed a study group about a tragic plane crash incident in 1992, where a cargo airplane has crashed into an apartment in Amsterdam killing 43 people. 50% of the study group answered affirmatively when asked if they had seen the video.

When asked again later, the number of affirmatives increased by two thirds. The respondents also added details about the crash angle of the airplane and its aftermath. Remarkably, there was no video released about the plane crash. The mere implication of a video made the respondents’ brains create false memories.

In another case, a man in London, when questioned about a brutal murder, turned himself in a day later with a full confession. This was because his brain fabricated visions, and he was convinced that he was the murderer. He spent twenty-five years in prison before his sentence was reversed when new evidence came to light.

What To Do?

Understanding the repercussions of memory suggestibility is essential, especially where the law is concerned. The keepers of justice should avoid leading questions to avoid false memories.

6. Consistency Bias

Humans tend to place more value and confidence in their choices/decisions made. That said, we like to affirm that our past decisions and choices were better than the alternatives present at that time – even though, both choices/decisions seemed to carry equal weight then.

This affirmation of our memories is called consistency bias. It makes one create narratives that make sense.

Case in Point:

In a study conducted over four years, couples were asked, twice, to state how their relationships with their significant others were. The participants who replied ‘good’ both times remembered their responses. However, the participants who answered ‘not good’ the second time, falsely started believing that their relationship had never been good and believed that they had said the same thing earlier.

What To Do?

Construction of narratives is attributed to the functioning of the left brain. Therefore, one will always find that the brain tries to explain their actions. One should try and view information objectively to avoid consistency bias.

7. Memory Persistence

We experience persistent memories due to the highly emotional events that affect us. Persistence is when you remember something all too well, even though you would much rather forget. Moments of embarrassment, or distress that seem to stick with you no matter what.

Considering that both positive and negative memories can be persistent, memories fail when people get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts. This becomes even more dangerous for people who are habituated to brood over negative events.

Case in Point:

The University of Michigan interviewed a group of students to analyze their emotions and mood after an earthquake. They inferred that amongst those who delved more into negative thoughts about the event, were more obsessed about it and subsequently dived deeper into depression.

In another study, psychologist Daniel Wegner showed that not thinking about something can be counterintuitive. He simply asked his study group to not think about something, for example, their significant other. While some were able to control their thoughts for some time, they rebounded with more intensity.

What To Do?

Persistent memories need to be put into a narrative context, in a way similar to letting negative emotions flow out and be done with them. Writing them down or talking to a friend will help to cope with such emotions. This can be done to positive emotions as well to boost their power and influence.

Absolving Yourself From Seven Sins

The seven sins of memory are simply side effects of the mechanisms the brain puts in place to adapt to certain situations. For example, if our minds were not susceptible to absent-mindedness, we would end up remembering every single detail of everything we encounter in our lives. At the same time, absent-mindedness also helps us to work on auto-pilot, especially with mundane chores we do every day. Imagine the pressure on the brain if we need to think about all these over and over again.

Similarly, consistency bias also leads to positive illusions. This positivity, whether it is in the right context or not, helps in keeping us positive. It is therefore futile to try and combat all the seven sins completely. We need them to function normally more than we think!