Did You Know

Why You Remember the Things You Do

We forget almost everything, so what sticks and why?

By Sarah Pratt

April 28, 2018 •

A gust of cold wind. Perfume in an elevator. Where you parked your car. We forget most of it. But that time you almost cut your finger off while slicing your bagel - that stays with you.

Often our search for a particular memory is like grasping at a swirling mist. Rather than asking why we forget so much, maybe it's more informative to ask why we remember what we do. Only a small portion of our experience is captured in long-term memory, says psychology professor Norman R. Brown. And most of those memories are formed for one of three reasons.

1: Generalities

What did you do this morning? Most people remember getting out of bed, getting dressed - but do you remember the specifics of this particular morning? "In a certain sense, memory for specific events is secondary and a lot less accurate than our memory of a generic understanding of the past," says Brown.

2: Repetition

Repetition is a classic mechanism to strengthen memory. "When I go back to the place where I went to grad school, I'm flooded with involuntary memories," he says. "When you're exposed to the same things all the time, you go away for 15 or 20 years and then you return and there are these extremely effective memory cues that take you back."

3: Blood and emotion

In experiments, Brown gave people words like "tree" or "automobile" then asked them to recall something specific. For such generic ideas, detailed memories are rare and exceptional. But when Brown suggested the word, "cut," suddenly everyone in the study could recall a time when, for example, they stepped on a piece of glass or were sliced while cutting bread. "A little bit of blood and a little bit of emotion and you'll remember it for the rest of your life," says Brown. He says that combination of emotion and distinctiveness is what solidifies the memory in your personal timeline.

But without the emotion and repetition, can we trust the general memories that we believe are detailed accounts of a point in time? What if we are asked for a specific memory rather than a general understanding of an event?

"I think the kernel of these long-lasting episodic memories is true, such as the basic outline of who was there or what happened in general," Brown says. "But the details are often reconstructed." Memory for specific details is not completely malleable however, says Brown, or it would be worthless to us.

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