Constantly refreshing your memory

I’m currently reading a fascinating and hugely entertaining book about human memory. The Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw is about the many ways in which our memories are unreliable.

To quote the blurb, Shaw is “one of only a handful of experts in the world who conduct research on complex memory errors related to emotional personal events – so-called ‘rich false memories’.”

I did a lot of research into the unreliability of eye witness recall when I was writing my novel Black Project (it involves UFOs and other weird phenomena – but in a funny way. It’s hilarious. You’d love it). And with all the other things I’ve read about how the brain works and how memories are formed, I’ve long had a strongly sceptical view of the trustworthiness of our view of the past. But one particular detail in the book struck me as having a powerful parallel in technology.

Now I’m not one who likes to call a computer a ‘brain’. Parallels between how processors function and how minds work are usually spurious even when you get into technologies such as neural nets. But here’s the bit that (if you’ll pardon the expression) struck a nerve, and it’s about retrieval-induced forgetting:

“This theory states that whenever we remember we also forget. So, while it seems intuitively appealing that every time we recall a memory we consolidate it and form a stronger and more accurate memory, this is far from the truth. Instead, every time a memory is recalled it is effectively retrieved, examined, and then recreated from scratch to be stored again.”

Sound familiar? Coincidentally, I read this section of the book the same night I wrote my blog post about core memory. And as we all know, one of the odder features of core memory is that reading it is destructive. Once you’ve read the contents, all the cores are set to 0 – effectively wiped – and you need to write the data back again.

With computers we’re lucky we’re dealing with nice clean digital data. This constant reading-wiping-rewriting can be done with only a minimal risk of errors.

With the wetware inside our heads, things aren’t so simple. Memories fade and get distorted. Chronologies get warped. And as Dr Shaw explains, many of our memories may be entirely fictitious.

Of course, these days we tend to outsource the job of remembering to our social network pages, digital photo albums and even blogs. As a photographer, I had tens of thousands of photographs even before digital photography came along. (Now it feels like I shoot that many a week. I mean, I exaggerate, but still…)  I find images are much better at remembering when things happened and how they looked. They also store lots of accidental, trivial data that sometimes becomes significant later.

Brains are icky things. When it comes to memory, I’ll stick with the silicon version, thanks.

1 thought on “Constantly refreshing your memory

  1. Ed

    An interesting point! A couple of other things about biological memory:
    – it’s built for recognition, not for retrieval
    – it’s holographic – you can store more than you expect, but the memories are not independent and they interfere. (Is that like a Bloom filter??)


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