Memory is important in everyday judgments and decision-making. In some way or another, memory affects most aspects of our lives. It is no surprise that there are many myths about memory.
Memory involves processing of information in different stages: sensory, short-term, and long-term. However, the mechanics of memory are not my concern in this article.
Here, I’ll focus on a couple of popular myths about memory. Donald Varakin, cognitive scientist, sheds light on these myths. So I posed the following question to Dr. Varakin…
I am aware there are numerous myths about memory. What have you found to be the two most common myths? It’s probably hard to limit it to two, but assuming you can only give us two, what would they be?
Here’s Dr. Varakin’s reply:
1. Some people have photographic memory. This means a memory that is as detailed as perception. There is no evidence that photographic memory exists… in anyone. A photographic memory would be non-selective, i.e. it would encode everything from a given picture. However, evidence suggests that memory is selective.
Information that is attentively processed tends to be encoded, and information that is not attentively processed tends not to be encoded. What’s more, two bits of information encoded from a given picture aren’t necessarily integrated in memory (Varakin & Loschky, 2010, QJEP). In other words, the information that is encoded from pictures is not stored and/or retrieved in the same manner as photographs.
The best evidence for photographic memory is at best highly suspect and not to be trusted. It comes from a paper published in the journal Nature in the 1970’s (Stromeyer, C. F., Psotka, J. (1970). The detailed texture of eidetic images. Nature 225 (5230): 346–349). The problems with this report are numerous: only one subject was tested, the subject happened to be the investigator’s wife, the wife has refused testing by other researchers, and no other researchers have been able to replicate the results. Of course, to say that no one has a photographic memory is not to deny that some people have extraordinary memory skills. But even people with extraordinary memory skills don’t encode everything they perceive.
2. Confident recollections are accurate recollections. Our memories can be distorted by a host of factors, most notably post-event information. Elizabeth Loftus’s work in this area is probably the most well known. In her research, she has demonstrated time and time again that memory for a given event is affected by experiences that happen after the event, leading to false memories. There is a relationship between confidence and accuracy of recollection, but the relationship is not very strong. In other words, high-confidence memories can be totally inaccurate.
About Donald Varakin
Varakin received his Ph.D. in psychological science from Vanderbilt University, and is now on the faculty at Eastern Kentucky University. His current research focuses on how external (e.g. perceptual organization) and internal (e.g. task-related goals) factors affect how visual information is perceived and remembered.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.