p-Prims about Memory

Memory can be tricky—somethings seem to come to mind without bidding, while others are stubbornly evading our efforts at recalling them. We have many explanations for how and why somethings are easy to remember and others take so much effort; or why some people are very good at mnemonic feats and others not so much. Many of these mental models of how memory works are faulty (or simply not true) and are based on folksy wisdom passed from one generation to the next. Some of these wisdoms involve tricks for remembering things. For example, my Russian grandmother suggested tying corners of handkerchief to aide memory—if you notice a knot on the corner, you know that there’s something you supposed to remember. Since I don’t carry a handkerchief, I use my rings for the same effect—move a ring from finger to another (where it typically doesn’t belong) and then at least I know that should be keeping something in mind. Of course this strategy does nothing to help you remember what it is you are supposed to remember, but that’s another problem.

So I thought to put together a little list of memory-related p-prims—a set of beliefs—that are common in our culture. Below, I link to an article by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, who conducted a telephone survey about people’s beliefs about memory. The abstract provides a quick reference for the percentage of the population that hold various beliefs (p-prims).

Please add more, if you know of any other memory related p-prims.

Memories are recoded like videos

This is a very common p-prim and lots of elementary school students that I worked with hold this view: memories are like the movies of lives, everything gets recorded (although we might have a hard time remembering a particular episode). The corresponding belief is that to “erase” a memory, one has to do physical damage to the brain (just like a video tape has to be physically erased or broken to destroy the recoding). The study listed below shows that 63% of those questioned held this view.

We are good at spotting and remembering unusual things and events

“If he really did something this stupid, I would have noticed it!”I heard this refrain commonly among playground monitors and teachers. But we tend to pay attention to those things that we expect to happen. Perceptual blindness is very common: we remember things as they should have been, as opposed to what actually happened. But we believe just the opposite! And our justice system gives a lot of weight to eye-witness testimony.

Amnesia leads to loss of identity and inability to recall one’s name

So many movie and soap-opera plots revolve about memory loss and consequent mayhem as the leading actor can’t remember who he/she is. It was one of Shakespeare’s favorite ploys as well. But it is very rare in real life to have amnesia with identity loss as one of its clusters of symptoms. But a staggering 83% of those question by study below saw inability to remember one’s name as the identifying characteristics of amnesia. Thank you “House”!

Hypnosis can aide in the recall of forgotten or suppressed memories

Suppressed memories liberated by a heroic hypnotherapist is also a common story line. The unfortunate consequence of this p-prim is that as a society we are gullible to sensationalist media reports. Adults suddenly remember childhood sexual abuse or children describe satanic rituals performed by their teachers in daycare…many lives ruined. These stories are believed because they are based on the common folksy wisdom of the power of hypnosis over memory (over half of those questioned believed this to be true). This can a very dangerous p-prim.

Simons DJ, Chabris CF (2011) “What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population.” PLoS ONE 6(8): e22757. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022757
Incorrect beliefs about the properties of memory have broad implications: The media conflate normal forgetting and inadvertent memory distortion with intentional deceit, juries issue verdicts based on flawed intuitions about the accuracy and confidence of testimony, and students misunderstand the role of memory in learning. We conducted a large representative telephone survey of the U.S. population to assess common beliefs about the properties of memory. Substantial numbers of respondents agreed with propositions that conflict with expert consensus: Amnesia results in the inability to remember one’s own identity (83% of respondents agreed), unexpected objects generally grab attention (78%), memory works like a video camera (63%), memory can be enhanced through hypnosis (55%), memory is permanent (48%), and the testimony of a single confident eyewitness should be enough to convict a criminal defendant (37%). This discrepancy between popular belief and scientific consensus has implications from the classroom to the courtroom.