Remembering 6 Common Memory Myths


3. Human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.

While the idea sounds nice, experts say a person's memory is nothing like that of the digital device. The authors noted that the idea of memory as something that can be rewound and replayed contradicts how memory is processed through knowledge, beliefs and expectations. People encode events differently and later events can distort that memory.

"Memories help us make sense of past experiences so that we can predict future ones," said Simons. "And, each time we remember something, we effectively are reconstructing what happened."

That means that memory is less like a digital recording of a concert that sounds the same each time you play it back, and more like an improvisational performance based on a common theme, said Simons. It can differ each time it's played back, and those differences can accumulate over time.

4. Once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory does not change.

"Memory is not a single brain process," said Schulz. "As a result, it appears that people can have an emotional memory that says, 'I'm sure about this,' that differs from what the factual memory part of our brain actually recalls. And then we have other areas that may fill in the details of what we forgot."

Much like the falsity behind the video camera, humans do not have a permanent memory recall; subsequent events and beliefs and expectations can change and re-mold a person's thoughts.

5. Hypnosis is useful in helping witnesses accurately recall details of crimes.

While several studies have shown that hypnosis can lead to more recall, that does not mean it leads to more accuracy.

"The mismatch between what most people think and the established scientific record about memory speaks to the need for better science communication and to the need for expert testimony about memory and cognitive psychology in legal proceedings," said Simons.

6. People generally notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they're paying attention to something else.

While it veers off the topic of memory, in the study researchers also found that people tend to believe they will notice whenever something unexpected or important happens. While that intuitive belief is legitimate, as sometimes we do notice unexpected events, people don't realize how often we miss unexpected events.

"The problem is that we have a limited capacity for attention, and we can only focus attention on a fairly small part of our world at one time," said Simons. "When we focus attention effectively, we successfully filter out all the distractions that we don't want to see. Unfortunately, that means we also filter out some unexpected events we might want to see."

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