Seven Sins Of Memory Essay

Schacter’s book summarizes the seven ways in which human memory can fail, and despite the problems these problems can cause us, they are side-effects of positive features of memory;  if we could get rid of these forgetting and biasing processes, we would actually be as our minds were flooded with irrelevant and confusing information.

Chapter 1: The sin of transience.

Gradual loss of memory. Memory is lost/diminishes over time. Both in STM and LTM.

  • Straightforward forgetting: the decay of recalled information over time. The brain has multiple memory systems with different forgetting characteristics”.
  • In the 19th century it was the time when psychologists first measured loss of retention over time and produced a famous curve of forgetting.
  • Transcience undermines memory’s role in connecting us to past thoughts and deeds that define who we are
  • Newer studies — what kinds of information are more or less susceptible to forgetting over time.
    • Implications: resident Clinton’s grand jury testimony about what he recalled from meetings with Monica Lewinsky and Vernon Jordan, what you are likely to remember from a day at the office, and how forgetting changes with increasing age.
    • New advances from state-of-the-art neuroimaging technologies, which provide snapshots of the brain in action as it learns and remembers
    • Neuroimaging to seek the roots of transience in brain activities that occur during the moments when a new memory is born.
      • Insights into transience
      • Approaches to reducing transienceà psychological techniques that promote enhanced encoding of new information, recent advances in neurobiology which are illuminating the genes that are responsible for remembering and forgetting…

Chapter 2: Absent-mindedness

Failure of attention, either at the encoding stage or at the retrieval stage.

  • “Forgetting associated with lapses of attention during encoding or during attempted retrieval can be described as errors of absent-mindedness”
  • Absent-minded errors have the potential to disrupt our lives significantly
  • E.g. lost keys, forgetting where we put something (Yo-Yo Ma forgetting his cello in a taxi)…
  • To understand why these errors occur it is necessary to test what is the relation between attention and memory.
    • Cues, reminders, automatic behavior in daily activities…
    • Autopilot- perform tasks efficiently, but also makes us vulnerable to be absent-minded.
    • Prospective theory- how and why different types of absent-minded forgetting occur.

Chapter 3: Blocking.

Failure to retrieve or access deeply encoded information – a temporal (as opposed to permanent in transience) inability to remember.

  • When people are provided with cues that are related to a sought-after item, but are nonetheless unable to elicit it, a retrieval block has occurred“, e.g. tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon
  • Why are we sometimes susceptible to episodes of blocking?
    • Names of people, specific places…?
    • Neurological disorder- Damage in the brain’s left hemisphere (not able to retrieve some names, even the person is able to retrieve names of objects)
    • Tip-of-the-tongue state — we cannot come up with a proper name or a common name, yet often can provide a great deal of information about it, including the initial letter and number of syllables.
    • Blocking also when remembering personal experiences (patients temporarily lose access to large sectors of their personal pasts, and new neuroimaging studies that are providing initial glimpses into what goes on in the brain during this sort of blocking).

Chapter 4- Misattribution

Failure of source-memory: Being able to remember the content but forgetting the actual source of the information and attributing it to some other source. This can take various forms, even to the point where one thinks that real events were only imagined or things that were only imagined are thought to have happened.

  • Three kinds of misattribution:
  1. Source confusion: “remember correctly an item or fact from a past experience but misattribute the fact to an incorrect source” e.g. eyewitnesses confusing where or when they saw a particular person; subjects confusing whether they saw something in real life or on television; confusions between imagination and memory
  2. Cryptomnesia:“an absence of any subjective experience of remembering. People sometimes misattribute a spontaneous thought or idea to their own imagination, when in fact they are retrieving it—without awareness of doing so—from a specific prior experience” e.g. unconscious plagiarism
  3. False recall and false recognition:when individuals falsely recall or recognize items or events that never happened. In some experiments, subjects show just as much confidence in their false recall as in their correctly recalled items.
  • Sometimes we remember things that we’ve only imagined or recall seeing someone at a place that differs from the reality- we recall aspects of the event correctly, but misattribute them to the wrong source.
  • False memories- Is there any way to tell the differences between true and false memories?
    • Scan subjects while they experience true and false memories, and the results provide some insights into why false memories can be so subjectively compelling.
    • Brain-damaged patients who are especially prone to misattributions and false memories.

Chapter 5- Suggestibility

Possibility to “remember” something while the only basis for this memory is that it was suggested to us by someone else (without a real basis).

  • Suggestibility in memory refers to the tendency to incorporate information provided by others, such as misleading questions, into one’s own recollections”.
  • Our memories are sometimes permeable to outside influences: leading questions or feedback from other people can result in suggested false memories of events that never happened.
  • Kind of misattribution.
  • Schacter uses “suggestibility” for misattribution where the misattributed information is suggested by another person. (e.g. Loftus “lost in the mall” study. Repeated and/or specific questions can cause the subject to vividly imagine an event, and then they can misattribute this vivid mental image as a memory).
  • Suggestibility can also lead people to confess to crimes they did not commit- easy to elicit false confessions in noncriminal settings.
  • We tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. (Searching for memory)
  • We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience — We bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.

Chapter 6- Bias

Misremembering due to the influence of current knowledge, emotions, beliefs, etc. Usually selective or distorted recall, in accordance with our beliefs.

  • Bias refers to the distorting influences of present knowledge, beliefs, and feelings on recollection of previous experiences”. Types of biases:
  1. Consistency bias:lead us to rewrite our past feelings and beliefs so that they resemble what we feel and believe now
  2. Change bias: people who have worked hard to improve their study skills distort their memory of how good they were before the course downwards (justification-of-effort bias?)
  3. Stereotypical bias: influence memories and perceptions in the social world. e.g. made-up “black” names are more frequently falsely remembered as names of criminals than “white” names
  4. Hindsight bias: recollections of past events are filtered by current knowledge;
  5. Egocentric bias: reveal that we often remember the past in a self-enhancing manner.
  • Clues from “split-brain” patients whose cerebral hemispheres have been disconnected from one another.

Chapter 7- Persistence

Occurs when memories that should be forgotten cannot be forgotten. Usually, they are linked to strong emotional experiences.

  • Persistence involves remembering a fact or event that one would prefer to forget. Persistence is revealed by intrusive recollections of traumatic events, rumination over negative symptoms and events, and even by chronic fears and phobias.” It can have dangerous consequences for psychological health.
    • Depressed subjects show greater memory for negative events and stimuli (persistence bias?)
    • Basis of persistence- evidence that emotions are linked with perception and registration of incoming new information — FORMATION OF NEW MEMORIES
    • Persistence is greater after traumatic experiences (wars, natural disasters, accidents, abuse…)
    • Some people become “stuck in the past”, in those traumatic events.
    • Those memories can be so overwhelming that it is only natural to try to avoid reexperiencing them.
    • Attempting to avoid remembering a trauma may only increase the long-term likelihood of persistently remembering it.
      • Studies of brain structure and physiology- neural foundations of traumatic experiences.

Chapter 8- Vices or virtues?

  • The seven sins are by-products of otherwise adaptive properties of memory.
  • Transience makes memory adapt to important properties of the environment in which the memory system operates. (Chapter 1)
  • Unusual cases of extraordinary recall illustrate why some apparent limitations of memory  produce absent-mindedness are in fact desirable system properties (Chapter 2)
  • Misattribution arises because our memory systems encode information selectively and efficiently, rather than indiscriminately storing details, and examine how bias can facilitate psychological well-being. (Chapter 4)
  • Persistence is a price we pay for a memory system that — much to our benefit — gives high priority to remembering events that could threaten our survival. (Chapter 7)

Recent developments in evolutionary biology and psychology to place these suggestions in a broad conceptual context that allows us to appreciate better the possible origins of the seven sins.

“Memories are something we should be grateful for, don’t you think? No matter what circumstances people end up in, they’re still able to remember things from the past — I think it must be a blessing bestowed on us by the gods.”  (Yumiura, Yasunari Kawabata)


Remembering the Past & Imagining the Future:

  • When remembering the past and imagining the future, one must draw upon similar types of information. Events in one’s past and future are personal and thus should contain autobiographical information. Both tasks involve the construction of an event representation.
  • Conceptual and visuospatial information known to comprise event representations (Greenberg & Rubin, 2003) — Conceptual and semantic information about the self and one’s life (e.g., familiar people, common activities) is thought to be mediated by anterior temporal regions. Episodic and contextual imagery should feature in both types of event, thus requiring activation of precuneus and parahippocampal/retrosplenial cortices respectively.
  • Both retrieving past events and imagining future events requires the binding of details into a coherent event: either the reintegration of a memory trace, or the new integration of incongruent details into a coherent future event.
  • Given the known role of the hippocampus in relational processing in memory (Cohen & Eichenbaum, 1993; Eichenbaum, 2001) and the reintegration of recollective details in autobiographical memories, it is likely this structure will also bind event details for novel future scenarios. The personal nature of both past and future events should engage regions mediating self-referential processing.


*D. L. Schacter (1999) “The Seven Sins of Memory. Insights from Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience”.

*D. L. Schacter & C. S. Dodson (2001) “Misattribution, false recognition and the sins of memory.”Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences.

*D. L. Schacter, J. Y. Chiao & J. P. Mitchell (2003) “The Seven Sins of Memory. Implications for Self”.

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Daniel L. Schacter, the chairman of Harvard's Psych Department, is one of the world's leading experts on memory.  In this book he provides a very useful framework for thinking about and discussing the classic difficulties we all have with memory and provides valuable insight into current scientific thinking on these problems.  His overarching theory about the seven sins, that they are basically necessary byproducts of the more positive aspects of our mind's ability to remember things, is pretty much inarguable.  Unfortunately, it is also rather circular, and so doesn't much further our understanding.

It is easiest to just quote Schacter fully on the seven sins :

    I propose that memory's malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or
    "sins," which I call transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and
    persistence. Just like the ancient seven deadly sins, the memory sins occur frequently in everyday
    life and can have serious consequences for all of us.

    Transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking are sins of omission: we fail to bring to mind a
    desired fact, event, or idea. Transience refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time. It's
    probably not difficult for you to remember now what you have been doing for the past several
    hours.  But if I ask you about the same activities six weeks, six months, or six years from now,
    chances are you'll remember less and less. Transience is a basic feature of memory, and the culprit
    in many memory problems.

    Absent-mindedness involves a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory.
    Absent-minded memory errors -- misplacing keys or eyeglasses, or forgetting a lunch appointment
    -- typically occur because we are preoccupied with distracting issues or concerns, and don't focus
    attention on what we need to remember. The desired information isn't lost over time; it is either
    never registered in memory to begin with, or not sought after at the moment it is needed, because
    attention is focused elsewhere.

    The third sin, blocking, entails a thwarted search for information that we may be desperately trying
    to retrieve. We've all failed to produce a name to accompany a familiar face. This frustrating
    experience happens even though we are attending carefully to the task at hand, and even though the
    desired name has not faded from our minds -- as we become acutely aware when we unexpectedly
    retrieve the blocked name hours or days later.

    In contrast to these three sins of omission, the next four sins of misattribution, suggestibility, bias,
    and persistence are all sins of commission: some form of memory is present, but it is either
    incorrect or unwanted. The sin of misattribution involves assigning a memory to the wrong source:
    mistaking fantasy for reality, or incorrectly remembering that a friend told you a bit of trivia that
    you actually read about in a newspaper. Misattribution is far more common than most people
    realize, and has potentially profound implications in legal settings. The related sin of suggestibility
    refers to memories that are implanted as a result of leading questions, comments, or suggestions
    when a person is trying to call up a past experience. Like misattribution, suggestibility is especially
    relevant to -- and sometimes can wreak havoc within -- the legal system.

    The sin of bias reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we
    remember our pasts. We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences -- unknowingly and
    unconsciously -- in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of
    a specific incident, or even of an extended period in our lives, which says more about how we feel
    now than about what happened then.

    The seventh sin -- persistence -- entails repeated recall of disturbing information or events that we
    would prefer to banish from our minds altogether: remembering what we cannot forget, even
    though we wish that we could. Everyone is familiar with persistence to some degree: recall the last
    time that you suddenly awoke at 3:00 a.m., unable to keep out of your mind a painful blunder on
    the job or a disappointing result on an important exam. In more extreme cases of serious depression
    or traumatic experience, persistence can be disabling and even life-threatening.

That all seems quite unexceptionable, in fact, a quite helpful way of organizing the several recurrent memory problems.

Schacter argues, accurately, that these sins pale to near insignificance when measured against the really extraordinary job that the brain does in storing and retrieving our memories.  Consider just the sheer vocabulary of words and the number of proper names that each of us has stored away and it seems awfully silly to complain that we sometimes have trouble recalling someone's name immediately.  This argument is compelling.

However, I found the final section of the book, when he considers why these sins occur at all, to be weak.  Though Schacter acknowledges some of the inherent problems of evolutionary psychology, he bases much of this discussion on an evolutionary approach, treating the seven memory sins as adaptations.  Thus we get a line of reasoning that goes something like this :

    -your memory of a near-death experience in a car accident keeps recurring

    -you wish you could dismiss the memory, but can't (the sin of persistence)

    -why should it be that the pleasant memory of a family picnic fades away but this horrible memory
    won't leave you alone  ?

    -Because, the brain has adapted in such a way as to keep these kinds of memories at the forefront of
    your mind, in order that they may serve as a warning and a lesson should something similar
    happen in the future.

This seems inoffensive enough on first consideration, but it conceals a couple of major objections.  First, it is unprovable.  There is no experiment which will show it to be either true or false.  As Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, showed, the very essence of good science is that it be falsifiable.  This is not.

Second, and related to the first, it is simply too neat.  Why do I remember X ? Because my mind thinks it may be important later.  Why do I forget Y ? My mind didn't think it would be useful.  The same theory answers both the positive and the negative side of the equation which is always a danger sign.  Imagine that the theory of gravity held that rocks fall to the ground because gravity chooses to act on them, but helium balloons float up because gravity doesn't consider them important.

Third, how did my mind know ahead of time which of my memories might tend to protect me later on in life ?  And why do I recall my own car accident so graphically and so frequently, but not the safety tips I got in Driver Education class ?  It may well be that our brains are sophisticated enough to make judgments about what to retain and what to discard, but it would be nice to see some concrete evidence that such is the case.

Finally, any argument that the mind intentionally purges certain memories in order to leave room for the more important ones begs the question of why ?  Why hasn't the brain adapted in such a way that it can recall everything ?  Why treat any memory as insignificant ?  Why not store them all, in case we need them, or want them, later ?

All of these objections point up the degree to which evolutionary theory is a closed system, akin to religion, more than to science.  No theory is ever subjected to rigorous testing in a controlled environment.  Everything is the way it is because awesome forces decided that's how things should be.  Those who question the theories are not merely skeptics, they are treated as heretics.  But now, in a development which has been profoundly gratifying for those of us who generally look askance at Evolution, the internecine warfare between the sort of classical Darwinians (Stephen Jay Gould, etc.) and the Evolutionary Psychologists (Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, etc.) has exploded into charges and countercharges with both sides using these very types of arguments against each other.  Objections which were easily dismissed when they came from kooky Creationists are proving much harder to handle when they come from fellow scientists.  Even better, and vastly more entertaining, they throw things at each other and exchange charges of Nazism and sexism and racism, and all kinds of fun stuff (many of the recent battles have, for whatever reason, been fought out in the pages of the NY Review of Books).

So, Schacter's book is excellent as far as isolating and structuring these seven aspects of memory, be they sins or virtues.  And much of the discussion  is fascinating.  But the attempt to provide a general picture of why the sins may have come about in the first place is inadequate, and merely shows how much we have yet to learn about the mind.

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