Your recollection of a particular event might be exceptionally detailed and completely inaccurate.
Jennifer Talarico, a psychologist at Lafayette College, is working to better understand how memory works.
Jennifer Talarico is a cognitive psychologist at Lafayette College [CV]. Her research focuses on our ability to recall events that we have personally experienced. She has studied how memories for emotional events are similar to and different from other, non-emotional events, for example, showing that our memories for hearing about the September 11th terrorist attacks are no more accurate than everyday memories, even though we think that they are. This is only one example of how studying complex remembering phenomena can be an effective and exciting way of understanding basic memory processes.
I’d like you to remember the last time you ate dinner at a restaurant. Can you think of the specific time and place? Were you able to see the scene, maybe recreate the taste of the pasta, or hear the sound of your dining partner’s laugh? These details allow you to re-experience the event while remembering it. But, how do you know that the details you are retrieving are accurate?
We are all usually willing to admit we might be forgetting some aspects of the event – that is, leaving out details. However, we are usually less aware of when we are introducing new details in to our memories or when we might be confusing aspects of one event with another. These are not conscious lies that we tell ourselves, but rather the result of the completely natural and efficient way that our mind recreates the past. Remembering is much more like staging a play than showing a film.
Think about that dinner again. You likely didn’t pay much attention to the floor at the time, yet your memory included some kind of flooring. Our memories work by drawing inferences based on prior experience. It’s not efficient (or even possible) to attend to every detail of every event as it happens. As we experience the world, we build representations of what events are typically like. We then rely on those representations to help fill-in-the-blanks when we recall specific events. Most of the time, most components of our memories are mostly accurate, but, think about a recent disagreement you’ve had with a spouse or a sibling about what happened at a particular event in the past. Presumably, you both believe that you’re remembering the event correctly, but, necessarily, one of you must be wrong! The subjective sense of confidence in our own memories is often at odds with objective accuracy. This is true even when the event in question is more important or more emotional than a simple restaurant dinner.
For example, my colleagues and I have shown that even though we all feel strongly that we remember exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing when we learned of the September 11th attacks, many of our memories have changed over the past 14 years such that what we remember now is different from what we recalled then. So, in the future, remember that remembering isn’t perfect.