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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2014

The Seven Sins of Memory: Additional Insights
With Daniel L. Schacter

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer

Memories are more intertwined, malleable, and complex than popular media sources often express; the things you remember cannot be simply retrieved or erased as if they are computer files on a hard drive or organized books on a shelf. As outlined in The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers by Dr. Daniel L. Schacter of Harvard University (MA), no fewer than seven unique factors may be responsible for the distortion or utter misplacement of memories that you hold dear.

Dr. Schacter has studied memory research since he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergraduate and went on to work as a research assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Herbert Crovitz of Duke University (NC) and Durham VA Medical Center. While there, Dr. Schacter was involved in testing patients with memory disorders and was struck by the selective deficit in memory he saw. For example, if he had been with a patient for an hour and then walked into the next room and came back, the patient might not even remember what had gone on for the past hour. However, in many other ways, the patients seemed very intact with an ordinary ability to use language, perception, and overall function. This selectiveness of memory and the brain fascinated him and ultimately led him to graduate school where he studied with Dr. Endel Tulving.

Since earning his PhD, Dr. Schacter’s memory research areas have included memory distortions, the relationship between conscious and unconscious forms of memory, improving online learning, and memories and aging. As he has found in his studies, "From my point of view, our memories are usually influenced by our general knowledge, beliefs, and emotions—they are the composite of all those things, which result in what we call a memory. Memory is much more than just the simple idea of shining a light on a photograph in our brains or literal retrieval in the sense of a computer. It’s much more of a constructive process.”

On the Seven Sins of Memory
In his personal life, Dr. Schacter takes the most pride in his time with his wife and two daughters. Professionally, he is proud of the books he has authored, starting with the first one he wrote in graduate school about a scientist named Richard Semon (Schacter, 1982). "That was something I took a lot of satisfaction in doing,” he says. He also later wrote Searching for Memories (Schacter, 1996), which summarized many of his ideas, and The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Schacter, 2001), both of which were named as New York Times Notable Books of the Year and won APA’s William James Book Award. In addition, he recently coauthored an introductory psychology text (Schacter, Gilbert, & Wegner, 2010).

In possibly his most popular book, The Seven Sins of Memory, Dr. Schacter outlined the following causes of distorted or lost memories

  • Transience—the general deterioration of a memory over time
  • Absentmindedness—lapses of attention; forgetfulness
  • Blocking—when a memory is available but cannot be retrieved at a particular moment
  • Misattribution—recollection associated with an incorrect source
  • Suggestibility—when false details are added to a memory due to leading questions
  • Bias—when current feelings distort memories of past events
  • Persistence—unwanted recall of information that is disturbing

Of these memory sins, Dr. Schacter says, "I think the sins that I refer to as the sins of omission—the three forgetting-related sins known as transience, absentmindedness, and blocking—are definitely the most prevalent. Omission sins affect everyone, and one of the most consistent findings is that memory becomes less specific as we age. People are pretty good at retaining the gist or general sense of what has happened, but memories for specific details often seem to be the most susceptible to aging. Omission sins are the ones that bother people the most often. If you look at the sins referred to as the sins of commission—misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence—you will find that people often do not even recognize those when they occur.”

This is exactly the sort of memory complexity that Dr. Schacter wants people to better understand, but can one ever truly prevent their memories from being altered upon retrieval? In response, Dr. Schacter says, "I don’t really think we have much good data on that point, but it is an interesting question. We may not have a lot of control over our memories because one of the ways in which memories can change is when we retrieve them in a new context. For example, when we talk about our memories to other people, we may add in new information, or information about the current context may be sort of tagged onto our previous memory.”

Fortunately, although total control and retention of our memories is impossible, there are certain things that can help affect and even improve memory retention if only people will take a little time to learn them. Dr. Schacter has investigated many of these topics and provides his valuable advice on the effectiveness or value of the following four popular strategies.

  1. Quizzes. Recently, one line of work in Dr. Schacter’s lab has involved improving people’s memories for lectures. Students often struggle with this although it has not been studied that much. "We’ve had some nice results in recent publications indicating that, if you intersperse brief quizzes within a lecture, people pay better attention, they mind-wander less, and they’re better able to retain information at the end of a lecture.”
  2. Mnemonics. "Mnemonics work,” Dr. Schacter insists, "though most people find that they require mental effort.” For example, try making up your own mnemonic to help remember the seven sins of memory listed above such as Think About Bluegrass Music So Burdens Perish. It may take a few minutes, but you will be less likely to forget!
  3. Worrying. If you have ever wondered if worrying about your memory loss will only speed up the process, then keep in mind that "this depends on what results from your worrying. If your worrying causes you to go read books on memory improvement or develop strategies for improving memory, then it could potentially help you. If worrying makes you so anxious that your memory further declines, then it could hurt you.”
  4. Routines. When asked which sin he struggles with most, Dr. Schacter admits, "Probably absentmindedness from being too caught up in my thoughts to notice where I put my keys or glasses.” However, he encourages following a simple solution of forming a habit or routine of placing objects in a certain place. He also suggests using external devices such as smartphones or computer calendars to write down appointments because that can be very helpful too.

Other Influences on Memory
Another popular memory topic is whether recent technological advancements have altered our abilities to retain information because people are increasingly dependent on finding instant answers via Google and other technological sources. However, Dr. Schacter isn’t entirely convinced that these "facts at our fingertips” are causing our memories to suffer from disuse. "There’s not really a lot of evidence on that point, and it would take a long time to obtain evidence of any kind of generational shift in memory abilities as a consequence of relying on technology. Certainly, there are big effects on the way that we use information and where we turn to when we can’t remember something, but the idea that our reliance on technology somehow might translate into reduced brain capacity—I’m skeptical of that. I don’t think there’s any evidence of a general decline in memory as a consequence of technology.”

On the other hand, Dr. Schacter has found evidence for the popular belief that emotional arousal at the time of an experience promotes stronger retention of the experience, though there are certain qualifications for that to happen. He explains, "Emotions can affect our memories in many different ways. Speaking in very broad terms, there is a large amount of evidence from the literature that emotional arousal at the time of an experience usually promotes memory for that experience. However, there’s also evidence that it can promote memory in a more selective way because people may be more focused on the central aspect of an experience when they’re emotionally aroused. For example, when people are highly aroused and stressed with a gun pointed at them, they may remember the details of the central object, the gun, very well but not remember much of the peripheral or the surrounding context.”

What Dr. Schacter Looks for in Students
"I think a broad-based background in psychology can help prepare students for memory research. Including neuroscience as part of a student’s background is important because psychology and neuroscience have become so increasingly integrated that, looking forward, it can’t hurt to add some neuroscience to a psychology background even if the brain is not one’s primary interest.” Dr. Schacter also encourages students to see if they can find a research assistant or lab manager position in a functioning lab that they are interested in. "For example,” he says, "if you finish your undergraduate studies with a strong interest in psychology, but you’re not quite sure what area you might want to pursue in graduate school or not even sure if research is for you, then I think looking for a position working as an assistant for a year or two can be very beneficial. It certainly was for me. That’s what got me into memory research, and it requires having some idea of your interests. With the Internet, it’s not too hard to look at labs in different departments and universities where you might want to go. I am frequently contacted by students asking if I might have a research position available.”

When Dr. Schacter attended the University of Toronto, he was mentored by Dr. Endel Tulving. Looking back, Dr. Schacter says, "Endel Tulving is a great memory researcher and he’s had a big impact on the field. I think the value of his mentorship for me was in providing a role model of how to be an excellent scientist and researcher. He taught me the value of clear thinking and clear writing. He supported me, and I’ve tried to do the same for my students.”

Dr. Schacter wholeheartedly believes that memory research has made a lot of progress in the 30 years that he’s been involved in the field. Now, when he searches for students to join his lab, he looks for those who have a solid grounding in the specific area of memory, exhibit a strong performance through their undergraduate studies, and have some kind of research experience as an undergraduate or a research assistant after undergraduate studies. He especially looks for someone with strong methodological skills for whom research is a real passion that they are excited about.

Dr. Schacter’s Selected Books
Schacter, D. L. (1982). Stranger behind the engram: Theories of memory and the psychology of science. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Schacter, D. L., Gilbert, D. T., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Daniel Schacter, PhD, is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology at Harvard University (MA). He received his PhD in 1981 at the University of Toronto and remained at Toronto until joining the University of Arizona in 1987. In 1991, he joined the faculty at Harvard University, and served as Chair of the Psychology Department from 1995 to 2005. His research explores the relation between conscious and unconscious forms of memory, the nature of errors in remembering, and how we use memory to image future events using cognitive, neuropsychological, and neuroimaging approaches. Dr. Schacter and his collaborators have published over 350 articles on these and related topics. He has also received a number of awards including the Troland Award and the Award for Scientific Reviewing from the National Academy of Sciences, the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize, the Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists, and the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association. Dr. Schacter is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 19, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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