Sample text for The seven sins of memory : how the mind forgets and remembers / Daniel L. Schacter.

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Counter Introduction:

A Blessing Bestowed by the Gods

In Yasunari Kawabata"s unsettling short story "Yumiura," a novelist
receives an unexpected visit from a woman who says she knew him
thirty years earlier. They met when he visited the town of Yumiura
during a harbor festival, the woman explains. But the novelist cannot
remember her. Plagued recently by other troublesome memory lapses, he
sees this latest incident as a further sign of mental decline. His
discomfort turns to alarm when the woman offers more revelations
about what happened one day when he visited her room. "You asked me
to marry you," she recalls wistfully. The novelist reels while
contemplating the magnitude of what he has forgotten. The woman
explains that she has never forgotten their time together and feels
continually burdened by her memories of him.
After she leaves, the shaken novelist searches maps for the
town of Yumiura with the hope of triggering recall of the place and
the reasons why he had gone there. But no maps or books list such a
town. The novelist then realizes that he could not have been in the
part of the country the woman described at the time she remembered.
Though the woman believed that her detailed and heartfelt memories
were accurate, they were entirely false.
Kawabata"s story dramatically illustrates different ways in
which memory can get us into trouble. Sometimes we forget the past
and at other times we distort it; some disturbing memories haunt us
for years. Yet we also rely on memory to perform an astonishing
variety of tasks in our everyday lives. Recalling conversations with
friends or recollecting family vacations, remembering appointments
and errands we need to run, calling up words that allow us to speak
and understand others, remembering foods we like and dislike,
acquiring the knowledge needed for a new job -- all depend, in one
way or another, on memory. Memory plays such a pervasive role in our
daily lives that we often take it for granted until an incident of
forgetting or distortion demands our attention.
In this book I explore the nature of memory"s imperfections,
present a new way to think about them, and consider how we can reduce
or avoid their harmful effects. Memory"s errors have long fascinated
scientists, and during the past decade they have come to occupy a
prominent place in our society. With the aging of the baby boom
generation, memory problems are increasingly common among this large
sector of the population. A 1998 cover story in Newsweek proclaimed
that memory has become the principal health concern of busy, stressed-
out, and forgetful baby boomers -- and many others. Forgotten
encounters, misplaced eyeglasses, and failures to recall the names of
familiar faces are becoming regular occurrences for many adults who
are busily trying to juggle the demands of work and family, and cope
with the bewildering array of new communications technologies. How
many passwords and PINs do you have to remember just to manage your
affairs on the Internet, not to mention your voice mail at the office
or your cell phone? Have you ever had to apply for a temporary PIN at
a website because you"ve forgotten your permanent number? I certainly
In addition to dealing with the frustrations of memory
failures in daily life, the awful specter of Alzheimer"s disease
looms large. As the general public becomes ever more aware of its
horrors through such high profile cases as Ronald Reagan"s battle
with the disorder, the prospects of a life dominated by catastrophic
forgetting further increase our preoccupations with memory.
Although the magnitude of the woman"s memory distortion
in "Yumiura" seems to stretch the bounds of credulity, it has been
equaled and even exceeded in everyday life. Consider the story of
Binjimin Wilkomirski, whose 1996 Holocaust memoir, Fragments, won
worldwide acclaim for portraying life in a concentration camp from
the perspective of a child. Wilkomirski presented readers with raw,
vivid recollections of the unspeakable terrors he witnessed as a
young boy. His prose achieved such power and eloquence that one
reviewer proclaimed that Fragments is "so morally important and so
free from literary artifice of any kind at all that I wonder if I
even have the right to try to offer praise." Even more remarkable,
Wilkomirski had spent much of his adult life unaware of these
traumatic childhood memories, coming to terms with them only in
therapy. Because his story and memories inspired countless others,
Wilkomirksi became a sought-after international figure and a hero to
Holocaust survivors.
The story began to unravel, however, in late August 1998,
when Daniel Ganzfried, a Swiss journalist and himself the son of a
Holocaust survivor, published a stunning article in a Zurich
newspaper. Ganzfried revealed that Wilkomirski is actually Bruno
Dossekker, born in 1941 to a young woman named Yvone Berthe Grosjean,
who later gave him up for adoption to an orphanage. Young Bruno spent
all of the war years with his foster parents, the Dossekkers, in the
safe confines of his native Switzerland. Whatever the basis for his
traumatic "memories" of Nazi horrors, they did not come from
childhood experiences in a concentration camp. Is
Dossekker/Wilkomirksi simply a liar? Probably not: he still strongly
believes that his recollections are real.
We"re all capable of distorting our pasts. Think back to your
first year in high school and try to answer the following questions:
Did your parents encourage you to be active in sports? Was religion
helpful to you? Did you receive physical punishment as discipline?
The Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer and his
collaborators put these and related questions to sixty-seven men in
their late forties. Their answers are especially interesting because
Offer had asked the same men the same questions during freshman year
in high school, thirty-four years earlier.
The men"s memories of their adolescent lives bore little
relationship to what they had reported as high school freshmen. Fewer
than 40 percent of the men recalled parental encouragement to be
active in sports; some 60 percent had reported such encouragement as
adolescents. Barely one-quarter recalled that religion was helpful,
but nearly 70 percent had said that it was when they were
adolescents. And though only one-third of the adults recalled
receiving physical punishment decades earlier, as adolescents nearly
90 percent had answered the question affirmatively.
Memory"s errors are as fascinating as they are important.
What sort of system permits the kinds of distortions described in
Kawabata"s fiction and the Wilkomirski case, or the inaccuracies
documented in Offer"s study? Why do we sometimes fail to recall the
names of people whose faces are perfectly familiar to us? What
accounts for episodes of misplaced keys, wallets, or similar lapses?
Why do some experiences seem to disappear from our minds without a
trace? Why do we repeatedly remember painful experiences we"d rather
forget? And what can we do to avoid, prevent, or minimize these
troublesome features of our memory systems?
Psychologists and neuroscientists have written numerous
articles on specific aspects of forgetting or memory distortions, but
no unified framework has conceptualized the various ways in which
memory sometimes leads us astray. In this book, I provide such a
framework. I try to develop a fresh approach to understanding the
causes and consequences of memory"s imperfections that, for the first
time, suggests a way to think about the wide range of problems that
memory can create.
As a memory researcher for more than twenty years, I"ve long
been intrigued by memory failures. But it was not until a sunny
morning in May 1998, in the midst of my daily walk, that I considered
a simple question: What are the different ways that memory can get us
into trouble? I suddenly recognized that it is necessary to address
that question in order to develop a broad understanding of memory
errors. Yet I also realized that the question had not yet been asked.
For the next few months, I brought together everything I knew about
memory"s imperfections and attempted to impose some order on a vast
array of lapses, mistakes, and distortions. I generated a variety of
unsatisfactory schemes for conceptualizing these diverse
observations, but eventually hit on a way of thinking that helped to
make everything fall into place.
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.
In this book I consider new discoveries, some based on recent
breakthroughs in neuroscience which allow us to see the brain in
action as it learns and remembers and which are beginning to
illuminate the basis of the seven sins. These studies allow us to see
in a new light what"s going on inside our heads during the
frustrating incidents of memory failure or error which can have a
significant impact on our everyday lives. I also discuss how our
emerging knowledge of the seven sins can help to counter them. But to
understand the seven sins more deeply, we also need to ask why our
memory systems have come to exhibit these bothersome and sometimes
dangerous properties: Do the seven sins represent mistakes made by
Mother Nature during the course of evolution? Is memory flawed in a
way that has placed our species at unnecessary risk? I don"t think
so. To the contrary, I contend that each of the seven sins is a by-
product of otherwise desirable and adaptive features of the human
Consider by analogy the ancient seven deadly sins. Pride,
anger, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth have great potential to
get us into trouble. Yet each of the deadly sins can be seen as an
exaggeration of traits that are useful and sometimes necessary for
survival. Gluttony may make us sick, but our health depends on
consuming sufficient amounts of food. Lust can cost a straying
husband his wife"s affections, but a sex drive is crucial for
perpetuating genes. Anger might result in dangerous elevations of
blood pressure, but also assures that we defend ourselves vigorously
when threatened. And so forth.
I argue for a similar approach to the memory sins. Rather
than portraying them as inherent weaknesses or flaws in system
design, I suggest that they provide a window on the adaptive
strengths of memory. The seven sins allow us to appreciate why memory
works as well as it does most of the time, and why it evolved the
design that it has. Though I focus on problems that the seven sins
cause in everyday life, my purpose is not to ridicule or denigrate
memory. Instead, I try to show why memory is a mainly reliable guide
to our pasts and futures, though it sometimes lets us down in
annoying but revealing ways.
I"ll begin by exploring the nature and consequences of the
sin of transience in Chapter 1. Toward the close of the nineteenth
century, pioneering psychologists first measured loss of retention
over time and produced a famous curve of forgetting. Newer studies
have taught us about what kinds of information are more or less
susceptible to forgetting over time. This research has implications
for such diverse topics as President 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. We"ll also consider
exciting new advances from state-of-the-art neuroimaging
technologies, which provide snapshots of the brain in action as it
learns and remembers. My research group has used neuroimaging to seek
the roots of transience in brain activities that occur during the
moments when a new memory is born. Insights into the basis of
transience also suggest new methods to counter it. I"ll consider a
range of approaches to reducing transience, including psychological
techniques that promote enhanced encoding of new information, the
effects of such popular products as Ginkgo biloba, and recent
advances in neurobiology which are illuminating the genes that are
responsible for remembering and forgetting.
Chapter 2 focuses on the most irritating of the seven sins:
absent-mindedness. We"ve all had more encounters with lost keys and
forgotten errands than we might care to remember. Absent-minded
errors have the potential to disrupt our lives significantly, as the
great cellist Yo-Yo Ma found out in October 1999 when he left his
$2.5 million instrument in the trunk of a taxi. Fortunately for Ma,
police recovered the instrument right away. I"ll also consider a
similar case with a bizarre outcome. To understand why absent-minded
errors occur, we need to probe the interface between attention and
memory, explore the role of cues and reminders in helping us to carry
out everyday tasks, and understand the important role of automatic
behavior in daily activities. We spend a great deal of our lives on
autopilot, which helps us to perform routine tasks efficiently, but
also renders us vulnerable to absent-minded errors. A new area of
research on what psychologists call "prospective memory" is beginning
to unravel how and why different types of absent-minded forgetting
There are few more jarring experiences than knowing that you
know something cold -- the name of an acquaintance or the answer to a
trivia question -- while failing to produce the information when you
need it. Chapter 3 explains why we are occasionally susceptible to
such episodes of blocking. Proper names of people and places are
especially vulnerable to blocking, and the reasons why this is so
help to explain the basis of the sin of blocking. In a fascinating
neurological disorder that I"ll consider, known as "proper name
anomia," patients with damage to specific regions within the brain"s
left hemisphere cannot retrieve proper names of people (and sometimes
places), even though they can easily summon up the names of common
objects. These patients often know a great deal about the people or
places whose names they block, such as a person"s occupation or where
a city is located on a map. The plight of these patients resembles
the familiar tip-of-the-tongue state, where we can"t 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. I"ll compare alternative theories of the tip-of-the tongue
state and suggest ways to counter this and related forms of blocking.
Blocking also occurs when people try to remember personal
experiences. I"ll consider exotic cases in which 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. Laboratory studies
of more mundane forms of blocking, in which retrieving some words
from a recently read list impairs access to others, have intriguing
implications for such real-world situations as interviewing
eyewitnesses to a crime.
Chapter 4 considers the first of the sins of commission:
misattribution. Sometimes we remember doing things we only imagined,
or recall seeing someone at a particular time or place that differs
from when or where we actually encountered him: we recall aspects of
the event correctly, but misattribute them to the wrong source. I"ll
show how misattribution errors figure prominently in such seemingly
disparate phenomena as déjà vu, unintentional plagiarism, and cases
of mistaken eyewitness identification. Remember the infamous John Doe
2 from the Oklahoma City bombing? I"ll explain why he was almost
surely the product of a classic misattribution error.
Psychologists have devised clever methods for inducing
powerful misattribution errors in the laboratory. People incorrectly
claim -- often with great confidence -- having experienced events
that have not happened. In addition to explaining why such false
memories occur, I will explore a question with important practical
and theoretical ramifications: is there any way to tell the
differences between true and false memories? Our research team has
used neuroimaging techniques to scan subjects while they experience
true and false memories, and the results provide some insights into
why false memories can be so subjectively compelling. We"ll also
encounter brain-damaged patients who are especially prone to
misattributions and false memories. One patient believed that he
was "seeing film stars everywhere" -- mistaking unfamiliar faces for
familiar ones. Understanding what has gone wrong in such individuals
can help to illuminate the basis of misattributions in healthy people.
Chapter 5 examines what may well be the most dangerous of the
seven sins: suggestibility. 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.
Suggestibility is a special concern in legal contexts. We"ll examine
cases where suggestive questioning by law enforcement officials has
led to serious errors in eyewitness identification, and where
suggestive procedures used by psychotherapists have elicited memories
of traumatic events that never occurred. Young children are
especially vulnerable to the influences of suggestive questioning, as
illustrated in a tragic Massachusetts day care case in which an
entire family went to prison because of children"s recollections that
I believe have been tainted by suggestive questions. Suggestibility
can also lead people to confess to crimes they did not commit. I"ll
discuss such cases, and also consider recent experimental evidence
showing that it is surprisingly easy to elicit false confessions in
noncriminal settings.
As I showed in my earlier book, Searching for Memory, 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. But we now know that we do not record our
experiences the way a camera records them. Our memories work
differently. 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. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by
attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.
Chapter 6 explores several different types of biases that
sometimes skew our memories. For instance, "consistency biases" lead
us to rewrite our past feelings and beliefs so that they resemble
what we feel and believe now. We"ll see how consistency biases shape
memories in diverse situations, ranging from how supporters of Ross
Perot remembered feeling when he quit the 1992 presidential race to
how much married and dating couples recall liking or loving each
other at different points in the past. "Egocentric biases," in
contrast, reveal that we often remember the past in a self-enhancing
manner. I will show that egocentric biases can influence recall in
diverse situations, ranging from how divorced couples recall their
marital breakups to students" recall of their anxiety levels prior to
an exam. "Stereotypical biases" influence memories and perceptions in
the social world. Experience with different groups of people leads to
the development of stereotypes that capture their general properties,
but can spawn inaccurate and unwarranted judgments about individuals.
I"ll consider recent studies that explore how stereotypical bias
fuels racial prejudice, and can even lead people to "remember" the
names of nonexistent criminals. Although little is known about the
brain systems that give rise to bias, I will discuss some intriguing
clues from "split-brain" patients whose cerebral hemispheres have
been disconnected from one another.
Chapter 7 focuses on the most debilitating of the seven sins:
persistence. Try to think of the single biggest disappointment in
your life -- a failure at work or school, or a romantic relationship
gone sour. Chances are that you recollected this experience
repeatedly in the days and weeks after it happened, even though you
wished you could forget it. Persistence thrives in an emotional
climate of depression and rumination, and can have profound
consequences for psychological health, as we"ll see in the case of a
baseball player who was literally haunted to death by the persisting
memory of a single disastrous pitch. To understand the basis of
persistence, I will consider evidence that emotions are closely
linked with perception and registration of incoming information,
which in turn influence the formation of new memories.
The force of persistence is greatest after traumatic
experiences: wars, natural disasters, serious accidents, childhood
abuse. Nearly everyone persistently remembers a traumatic event in
its immediate aftermath, but only some people become "stuck in the
past" for years or decades; we"ll explore why this is so. Traumatic
memories can be so overwhelming that it is only natural to try to
avoid reexperiencing them. Paradoxically, however, attempting to
avoid remembering a trauma may only increase the long-term likelihood
of persistently remembering it. Studies of brain structure and
physiology are providing important information about the neural
underpinnings of traumatic persistence, and also suggest potentially
novel methods for reducing persistence.
After reading the first seven chapters, you might easily
conclude that evolution burdened humankind with an extremely
inefficient memory system -- so prone to error that it often
jeopardizes our well-being. In Chapter 8 I take issue with this
conclusion, and argue instead that the seven sins are by-products of
otherwise adaptive properties of memory. For instance, I"ll show that
transience makes memory adapt to important properties of the
environment in which the memory system operates. I will also consider
unusual cases of extraordinary recall which illustrate why some
apparent limitations of memory that produce absent-mindedness are in
fact desirable system properties. I"ll explain how 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. I"ll also
argue that 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. I draw on 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.
In Kawabata"s "Yumiura," the woman who remembered a love
affair that apparently never happened reflected on the gift of
memory. "Memories are something we should be grateful for, don"t you
think?" she asked the bemused novelist. "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."
She offered this high praise even though the memory system she
celebrated led her unknowingly down a path of delusion. The path
through this book is in some ways analogous: we will need to immerse
ourselves in the dark sides of memory before we can fully appreciate
this "blessing bestowed by the gods."

Copyright © 2001 by Daniel L. Schacter

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