How many times might a parent, or teacher, say that a child in their care only hears what they want to hear? Alternatively, how often might we suspect our friends of having selective memories – of only recalling the elements of a discussion that supported their view, or of dwelling exclusively on the times that a toxic partner was loving, or demonstrative? And of course, our brains may also cherry-pick memories in positive ways that inspire us to repeat tough things: for example, the person who finishes a marathon, determined to never run one again, and then signs up for another as soon as their aches have evaporated.
Memory and Technology
Technology and our increasing reliance on it also play a role in how and what we remember. Consider photography, for example. Even though you may not actively remember your second birthday party, you may have seen photos of yourself wearing a green dress as you blew out the candles on your chocolate cake. Over time, this may translate to you believing that you remember the event itself - “Oh yes, my second birthday! I remember that! I was wearing a green dress and I had a chocolate cake!” The distinction between the memory of the visual information and the memory of the actual occasion becomes blurred. In the same way, our memories of past vacations may, over time, become dependent on our video recordings and holiday snaps. We may think that we remember the decorative blue tiles at the beach bar ‘as if it were yesterday,’ - yet actually, it may be because we have seen the image of it far more times than we did in real life. At the same time, the tiles in the hotel bathroom, of which we don’t have photos, may fade from memory completely.
It is interesting, in this context, to consider how reliable our memories might be - after all, the images we generally capture with technology tend to be the happy ones: rarely do we record ourselves suffering the ill-effects of food poisoning, having a blazing row with a friend or feeling lonely in a cafe. Is this another way in which memory can be selective - and indeed, how we might actively contribute to that being the case?
In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple undergo a procedure in order to erase the memory of their relationship from their minds. Of course, they are trying to wipe their minds free of pain but, in the same way that antibiotics can’t help but take down the good bacteria while zapping the bad, the process of elimination does not discriminate: it takes everything.
A question of control?
In real life, erasure of memory is not a service that can be booked in for. Even so, as humans, many of us are adept at burying our memories. It would be difficult to argue against the psychological need, at times, to do so - victims of trauma may well need to suppress their memories, in the short term at least, simply in order to be able to continue to exist. Inevitably, however, at some point, recollections of past events need to be recalled and processed, in order for healing and resolution to take place.
Yet this begs the question - can we, to some extent at least, control our memories? If our brains, without instruction, are capable of repressing that which is too much to contend with, might we also be able to train them to sift through our experiences, hang on to the ones we want to hang on to, and discard the ones we don’t? Can we capture the good and minimise the bad - and, even if this is possible, should we? After all, as mentioned above, the work that psychotherapists do in encouraging patients to process their repressed memories tends to indicate that burying memories, even negative ones, is not conducive to our wellbeing. At what point does memory manipulation become problematic?
It is Sigmund Freud who is credited with first putting forward the idea that humans can practise intentional forgetfulness. Although his views were controversial at the time, more recent studies have demonstrated that we can indeed control our memories and that, when we do so, we activate the same part of the brain that’s used when we, without thinking, stop ourselves from performing a reflex action. For instance, when we see something falling, we instinctively reach to grab it - but if the object falling was, say, a burning hot coal, our impulses would repress that instinct. In the same way that our brains quickly distinguish between something that will be safe or painful to catch, it is thought that they can also learn which memories to retrieve, and which to repress.
The building blocks of memory
One of the ways that memories are most readily formed is when new information can attach itself to knowledge that already exists in the brain - for example, in the way that a child begins to make sense of the connection between a dog on a page, a real life dog, the word ‘dog,’ and the sound ‘woof woof.’ Later in life, this is also why a student who has learned a language such as Spanish may find it easier to learn, for example, Italian, than a person who has previously studied Japanese. Because the two European languages have similar structures and rules, the brain will have pre-existing knowledge on which to build its understanding of the new language. The links between new stimuli and existing knowledge also goes some way towards explaining why it is that a memory can be triggered - by a piece of music, or a particular smell, for example. If ‘cinnamon’ is attached in the mind to ‘baking with my aunt’ for instance, the scent of cinnamon will almost inevitably recall that experience.
Read and remember, hear and forget?
Hearing, of course, plays a role in the development of memory related to language, but how important is it in the formation of memory generally? It has often been shown that receiving information aurally is not as effective for retention as visual stimulus, and that auditory information is best captured and encoded with the help of repetition. This explains why we may instantly forget the name of a person to whom we’ve just been introduced, but still be able to recall the words of the school anthem we last sang forty years ago.
Even so, the importance of hearing in the creation of memory should not be underestimated. In one study, it was demonstrated that students were better able to remember written information when they read it aloud to themselves, followed by listening to a recording of themselves reading aloud. Less successful for memory? Listening to someone else read, and reading silently. Despite the fact that what we hear is not generally considered to be as readily retained as what we see, the efficacy of our aural function still plays a vital role in the creation of memory.
Our hearing plays a further role in memory, as other research has demonstrated - in fact, hearing loss can be linked with cognitive impairment, with memory loss as one of the first recognisable symptoms of this. Again, this highlights the link between the two: although they may be thought of as two separate functions (hearing belonging to the ears, and memory to the brain) our senses and cognitive function are tightly intertwined. Indeed, our brains often step in to make sense of what our ears are struggling to hear, providing context when, for example, sounds are muffled, or speech is hard to decipher. Although the research referenced above focused on older people, the implications for people of all ages can be extrapolated - after all, when your ears can’t quite make sense of what they hear and the brain has to step in, this means that the brain is having to direct its energies away from other things, such as the creation of memory. And whichever memories you work to retain, or to minimise - and whatever memories you hang on to without even meaning to, or lose without intending to, healthy aural function plays an important role.