The human brain is quite a thing.
Some have described it as the most complicate piece of biology in the universe (that we know of so far). That said, one of things that sets the human brain apart is its capacity to store and recall information. In other words, it’s our ability to remember things that is remarkable.
Sure, lots and lots of lab research has been done on animals such as primates, mice, and even insects to test their ability to remember things – and to some extent this type of research shows that animals do have the capacity to remember – but what makes the human brain’s ability to remember so remarkable?
Well, to begin – and to put it simply – our memory can be divided up into our short- and long-term memories. And, with regard to the latter, our long-term memory can then be divided again into our declarative and non-declarative memories. Our declarative memories help us remember episodes (events in our own lives) and facts (like for when you used to take a test in school). Our non-declarative memories, on the other hand, involve “conditioned learning,” “perceptual experience,” and “skills and procedures.”
The first, conditioned learning, is really – to put it simply – learning by association. This is the type of learning that the Russian psychologist Pavlov became famous for when he conditioned dogs to salivate when they learned to associate the sound of a bell with food. Next, perceptual experience is, as authors Christopher Sterling and Daniel Frings explain, knowing the differences between two musical notes or intervals. Finally, skills and procedures are as, again, Sterling and Frings note, the memory used when you are learning to drive a car.
And although this is only scratching the surface of how memory works, memories are not always accurate. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus made her name in the field by studying and exploring “false memories.”
“Memories are highly malleable and easily distorted by suggestion and misinformation,” author Christian Jarret writes. “Experiencing a false memory in this way can happen to any of us because, far from being written in stone, our memories are like reconstructions, easily distorted and highly malleable.”
So, as it turns out, is our memory so remarkable after all, as suggested in the beginning of this article?
Loftus became vilified throughout her career because, well, she suggested that our memories may not be as good as we think. This was mainly because she took the unpopular position of questioning alleged victims of childhood trauma, rapists and the like because she showed that – although someone may not be outright lying – they may be reconstructing a false memory of an event.
Finally, as interesting is how memory works, it remains important that human memory is not a foolproof tool to recall the past with 100% accuracy. As noted above, memories can change, but – regardless – more research may be needed to help unlock this amazing capacity.
Jarrett, C. (2011). 30-Second Psychology. Metro Books, New York, NY.
Sterling, C., and Frings, D. (2016). Psychology Squared. Metro Books, New York, NY.