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Seven Sorts of Sinful Forgetting: Tips on How to Remember

Memory fades a little with age, but did you ever wonder why you've misplaced the keys, struggled to recall a name, or even remembered an event completely differently from someone else. Daniel Schacter, author of the book The Seven Sins of Memory explains how our memory fails us.

Daniel Schacter PhD, chairman of Harvard University's Department of Psychology and a leading researcher on memory and amnesia, described seven sins of memory in his book:

  1. Transience: weakening of memory over time.

    Many commercial memory improvement products rely on an overly elaborate system of imagery cues that are impossible to use in everyday life. Schacter suggests an alternative--simple images that relate what you wish to remember to what you already know. He also suggests active experiencing: Ask yourself simple questions about what you wish to remember. Some herbs, hormones, and genes can influence memory, though only slightly.

  2. Absentmindedness: breakdown between attention and memory.

    If you often forget things at some point during your day, the problem is likely the cues you use. Good cues are distinctive and informative. Visual cues (When you see Bill, tell him about the meeting) are better than time-based cues (Call me at 12:00), especially as you age.

  3. Blocking: thwarted search for desired information.

    Most of us have had the feeling that the word or name we are searching for is on the tip of our tongue. Often, you are able to remember some letters of the word. Use them as a starting point. You can also try to recall similar situations in which you saw the person or used the word to help trigger memory. Avoid repeating words that sound similar; it will only prolong your search. Finally, be proactive and link images to the word or name before you are likely to need them.

  4. Misattribution: incorrect memory assignment.

    Have you ever had the sense that you have seen or heard some bit of information before, even though it is entirely new? This is an especially common feeling among the elderly, who don't expect to recall specific details, but make recollections based on general feelings. Schacter suggests that you can combat misattribution by paying closer attention to the source of your ideas and not relying upon a general recollection.

  5. Suggestibility: implantation of wrong memories.

    We are all vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Eyewitnesses to the same crime often give widely different accounts. Using simple, open-ended questions and avoiding promises, praise, rewards, or expressions of disappointment or disapproval can all help reduce suggestibility. Avoid asking someone to take time and try and remember, which can lead them to recall things that never happened.

  6. Bias: editing the past based on current experiences.

    Seeing yourself in a positive light and another person negatively is a common bias. Another example is the habit of altering your recollection of the past to ft the present. An especially pernicious bias is stereotyping and expecting someone to act or behave a certain way because of their age or race. While there are no shortcuts, bias can be limited through self-examination.

  7. Persistence: repeated recall of disturbing memories.

    Repeatedly recalling a failure or trauma is common. For some it can become debilitating. You can fight repetitive memory by replacing counterfactual "what-if's" with an explanation of the rationale for your decision. Disclosing your feelings also helps to reduce persistent memories. Acknowledge, confront, and work through your intrusive memories. There are drugs and hormones that can reduce persistent memories, but they only defer the need to work through your feelings.

What prompted you to write this book?

I became fascinated with memory. Sometimes we forget what we want to remember or remember things we want to forget or remember things that never happened at all. This book prvides a way of thinking of how memory can cause trouble for us and play tricks on us.

In this book you provide a framework to categorize the seven most basic memory miscues. First is transience. Give me an example.

Transience is the weakening of memory over time. In the book, there's an extreme example. I was playing a round of golf. My partner hit a beautiful tee shot. I hit my shot and he teed the ball up again. He forgot he hit his shot. The information faded out of his memory as quickly as it was put in. Now, it turns out he was in the early stage of Alzheimer's.

A lot of people do worry that the misplaced keys or glasses could be Alzheimer's. But, according to your book that kind of behavior is quite common. Define absentmindedness.

Absentmindedness is perhaps the most frustrating of all the memory sins. It's the breakdown between attention and memory. And, the examples can be amazing. The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma once left his $2.5 million instrument in the trunk of a taxicab. Or, we've heard stories about people who've left a child in a car all day. It's a failure of our memory to take in information and remind us. We need to be reminded. If the reminder is there, you retrieve the information. It's a failure to encode it initially. It happens when we go on automatic pilot and aren't paying attention. It's very common and not a sign of Alzheimer's.

We all tend to go on autopilot during life's routine rituals. How can we avoid making such embarrassing memory mistakes?

You need to make use of effective reminders. It's important to have sufficient reminders. A string tied around your finger is not a good reminder because it's not specific. I speak with people all the time who write notes to themselves but can't remember what they mean. In order for your memory to give you that cue you need, you need to plan for absentmindedness and become better organized.

We've been talking about sins of forgtting but what about memory errors? Remembering events differently than they happened. Just recently, former Senator Bob Kerrey's memories of his service in Vietnam were called into question. What are the sins of memory failure?

That indicates three sins: misattribution, suggestibility, and bias. We're all familiar with people remembering events differently. It happens because we often remember events not as they happened but as we think and feel now. As in the case of Bob Kerrey, everybody is doing his or her best to tell the truth, but it could be an example of bias. We tend to remember the past as it reflects our current knowledge and beliefs. We tend to remember the past to fit the present.

What about eyewitnesses to the same crime?

Again, this can be misattribution--when people have a good general sense of what's going on but are often at risk of not getting the details right. This can have very important consequences. Suggestibility can also make eyewitnesses vulnerable to the power of suggestion. It can occur when people are asked to try and remember something.

Do supplements like gingko biloba work?

There is very little hard evidence that they can improve memory.

And you say the flip side of these memory troubles can help us--how?

Because the flip side is memories that can help us remember important information. A persistent memory of a trauma can be debilitating but it can also help your survival.

Why are some memories seared into our consciousness?

They're what we call flashbulb memories--like the Kennedy assassination or remembering where you were when the Challenger blew up. These are emotional and arouse active hormone systems that keep memories in a more durable form.
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