Why is Remembering So Hard?

Psychologists sometimes call it false memories. You know it as the frustration of not quite remembering events the way they occurred. It happens, regardless of how old you are. When you’re relying on your memory for a court case or an affidavit, a wandering memory can be alarming. Relax! Everyone has false memories.

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How Emotions Drive Memories

One reason memories can be fleeting is because your  emotions get in the way. Shahram Heshmat of the Science of Choice tells Psychology Today emotion makes memories sharper to ensure your survival. Like a computer, your mind collects, processes, stores and retrieves memories when you need them. And sometimes when you don’t.

Thanks for the Memories

So how does memory work? “Nothing focuses the mind like surprise,” Dr. Heshmat says. Like most people, you probably have a limited attention span. Your brain hones in on this by keeping the details simple. You remember only the highlights of exciting or traumatic events, not necessarily everything that happened.

Dangerous Times Call for Drastic Measures

Memories help you avoid future disasters. That sudden surge of energy you get when a car comes straight at you is caused by the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. Their release helps you fight or take flight. Your memory aids you by making a snapshot of what occurred and how you reacted. Next time a car comes at you, you’ll be ready.

Man, That Was Fun!

Recalling an old memory, especially traumas, engages your senses of smell, hearing, sight and more. The memory may play out in your mind’s eye “like an old Super 8 home movie or vintage Technicolor film”, says author Christopher Bergland. It’s almost like it is happening all over again. 

Firing on All Engines

Scientists who study the brain at University College London (UCL) say this is because your brain pieces your senses together like a jigsaw puzzle. You can remember what the cake at your 50th birthday party tasted like because your brain retrieves that part of the experience for you.

Reliving the Experience

Dr. Aidan Horner, who led the 2015 UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience study, explains it this way: “When we recall a previous life event, we have the ability to re-immerse ourselves in the experience. We remember the room we were in, the music that was playing, the person we were talking to and what they were saying.” 

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It’s All Coming Back Now

But why do painful members linger? Wouldn’t it better to forgive and forget? Remember that old saying “sticks and stones can break your bones…” Hurt feelings last longer than physical pain, Dr. Heshmat says. Emotional abuse — whether it is verbal or passed along with a grimace, mean look, sigh or tone of voice, creates a lasting record in your brain. 

Hitting the Peaks and Not the Valleys

Your brain peaks, just like your jogging does. Your mind recalls the worst (or best) and the last moments of any experience. What happened in between, or during the event, is what you are most likely to forget.   

Where You Are Makes You Recall Memories

Your long-term memory is like a laptop. It retrieves information and places it on your “clipboard”. Dr. Heshman calls this priming. When you enter a space where you’ve been before, such as a church, your early memories that church is a place of gravity come flooding back. So you act respectfully.

Happy, Mad or Sad

When The Voice judge Pharrell Williams performs his Happy song, we all hum along. It’s so joyous and upbeat most listeners can’t help but smile. You may have guessed it: your mood affects your memories. You recall happy memories most on good days. Bad moods bring back bad memories.

Pulling a Blank

A really bad day can lead to blanking out altogether. But what causes you to go blank in the first place? High anxiety follows an upside down U-curve, Dr. Heshmat explains. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson law. Being too hepped up (or too bored) affects your memory’s performance. When you are bored, your mind lacks focus. When you are anxious, your focus becomes too narrow. The details will usually come back to you, like that seems-like-it-will-never-stop-spinning icon on your laptop. If not, it could be a good thing to write it down.

Closing the Loop

Think of your brain as a race track. Details zoom through your brain as your Ferrari spins around the track. You keep it all together at high speed because different parts of your brain process individual pieces. The spectators in the stands. Your competitor’s cars. The green light. The red flag. Later on, when you recall your perfect day, all of those details come racing back to form the jigsaw puzzle.

What’s Obama Doing in the Kitchen?

If that isn’t completely clear, a UCL study might help. When researchers asked 26 volunteers to imagine former U.S. President Barack Obama standing in a kitchen holding a hammer, participants recalled various parts of the fictitious event with various parts of their brains. Questions like “What object did Obama have?” lit up different sections of their brains compared to “Who was in the kitchen?” 

And the Winner Is

Small wonder lawyers tell you to take notes if you expect to take someone to court. You’ll need the information later for your affidavit or court testimony. Just in case your memory fails you. 

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Make a Sworn Statement for Use in Court

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