Fallibility of Memory

We genealogists often struggle with memory and its problems. So often, I run into fellow researchers who think the long ago memory of someone who was “there” is fully trustworthy. We saw an extreme example of that a few years on a collaborative website. A certain user made the most outlandish claims, each time attributing his information to a a conversation he had with his father. His father was able apparently to remember detailed names, dates, and relationships going back hundreds of years, and this user was able to apparently to remember the whole thing after hearing it only once. 

This was an extreme example, but it was an especially strong reminder that there are limits to memory. Even when you think you remember, you don’t. Not always. I myself am often surprised when I read my old journals, that so many incidental details were very different from the way I remember them.

I often regret I haven’t done a better job of documenting and citing the science on the the fallibility and malleability of memory. In that spirit, I’m taking note of the following piece.

“In a well-known study conducted to measure memory retention, a group of college students were told a very short thirty-second story. The researchers said, We’re going to tell you this story, and all we want you to do is remember it as accurately as you possibly can. Then we’re going to have you tell it back to us at various intervals.” And so the students would listen to the story, knowing that their only task was to remember it as accurately as possible, and then, one minute later, they would be asked to repeat the story. Five minutes later, they’d be asked to repeat it again; and then a half an hour later, and then an hour later, and then twelve hours later, and then a day later, and then two days later, and then a week later, and then finally, two weeks later.

What the researchers found was that, in the very first retelling of the story, after only one minute, the students were actually already beginning to distort it, that their memories weren’t as accurate as they imagined. Even though the researchers were telling the story to very intelligent college students, with the relatively easy task of simply remembering the story, what they found was that when the students started to retell the story, within the third or fourth retelling, it became so different that it began to appear almost unrecognizable in relation to the original tale. And that was just within the third or fourth retelling, within an hour or two of having heard it. By a week later and certainly by two weeks later, the story was so distorted that you almost couldn’t imagine that the retelling ever came from the original story. And yet all of the students truly believed that they were remembering the story quite accurately.

The moments we remember from the first years of our lives are often our most treasured because we have carried them longest. The chances are, they are also completely made up.

Updated to add links.

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