9 Things You Should Know About Your Memory and Recall

A tire swing hangs under maple tree with yellow leavesMemory can be fundamental to individuality. Personalities, identities, goals, and dreams are often linked to past experiences and our ability to recall them. Memories are a big part of who we are, but many traits and conditions can affect how our memory operates.

Here are 9 things you should know about human memory and conditions that may affect it. While it is possible you may have heard some of these points before, chances are you may have already forgotten them.

1. Transient Global Amnesia

This type of amnesia refers to a sudden episode of temporary memory loss during which a person is unable to remember recent events or form new memories. People who experience transient global amnesia are able to identify themselves as well as people they are familiar with, but may be unable to recall where they are or what they are doing. Researchers are unsure why this form of memory loss occurs, but they say it only happens rarely, tends to last less than 24 hours, and appears to be harmless.

2. Infantile Amnesia

While many people are able to vividly recall key events that happened at different stages of their lives, most adults struggle to remember personal experiences during the first three to four years of childhood. This puzzling occurrence is often referred to as infantile amnesia or childhood amnesia.

Why does infantile amnesia occur? Sigmund Freud—often referred to as the “father of modern psychology”—suggested childhood memories may be repressed due to their inappropriate, disturbing, or sexually traumatic nature. Other researchers have since posited various theories for the cause of childhood amnesia without reaching a consensus.

What about those early childhood memories you have of taking your first steps or learning to ride your bike? In most cases, researchers say they are fake memories, compiled by your brain, possibly using bits and pieces from old pictures, family videos, and stories from your parents.

3. Hyperthymesia

Most people do not need to be reminded of the shortcomings of human memory. Memories may be faked, or they may become contaminated. You may need a series of repetitions to remember a friend’s new phone number, or you may forget the reason you walked into a room. Even the most distinct memories may fade with time. But what if you had no memory issues? What would life be like with near-perfect memory?

Jill Price is a woman with hyperthymesia, a condition characterized by an extraordinary ability to remember specific events and details from her past. Nicknamed the “human calendar,” when researchers give Price a date from the past 25 years, she is able to accurately recall what she did, any major world events, the weather, and even the day of the week associated with that date. She keeps a journal of her life every day, and researchers say her memory is autobiographical. All brain scans have been normal. At least 25 cases of hyperthymesia have been confirmed in peer-reviewed journals.

While the condition may initially sound like a gift, Price often speaks of the challenges that come with hyperthymesia, as she is not able to switch off her flood of memories. This makes falling asleep difficult, and she has said she is unable to forget experiences she would rather not remember. She also blames her memory abilities for years of dealing with depression.

4. Flashbacks

Memory is often defined as a kind of visual recall of past events, though it can take the form of auditory recall as well. For example, you may remember hearing about a particular event without actually having any associated visual data.

Memories can also exist in the absence of both visual and auditory information. Flashbacks—sudden, intrusive memories of past events—may occur with or without visual and auditory recall. Strong emotions experienced in the past can come to the forefront in the absence of sights and sounds.

People who experience flashbacks may feel trapped or experience intense feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, or fear. People with posttraumatic stress often experience these types of flashbacks.

5. Verbal Overshadowing

Investigators know eyewitness testimony is far from foolproof. Current research indicates one of the most common impediments to accurate eyewitness reports is verbal overshadowing.

Verbal overshadowing describes the negative effect oral and written descriptions have on visual recall and recognition. The more an eyewitness tries to describe an event, the more difficult it becomes to accurately recall. While a number of theories to explain the effect have been suggested, the exact mechanism behind verbal overshadowing remains unclear.

6. Message Sensation Value

Personalities, identities, goals, and dreams are often linked to past experiences and our ability to recall them.Many advertising companies produce ads high in message sensation value (MSV). The belief is these types of ads are likely to be more captivating, more persuasive, and more memorable for consumers. However, studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) show health ads with low MSV are recalled more easily. Low MSV health ads produce more activation in the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, and less activation in the occipital lobe when compared to high MSV health ads.

Researchers believe the increased occipital activation seen in attention-grabbing ads indicates valuable resources are being diverted away from brain areas (such as the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe) that promote learning and retention.

7. Mnemic Neglect

Though it may be easy for people to remember the negative characteristics and personality flaws of others, it is often significantly harder for most people to recall their own negative traits. This concept of selectively forgetting potentially self-threatening information is referred to as mnemic neglect.

Research shows incidents of mnemic neglect—believed to be an internal defense mechanism that promotes a positive self-concept—are more likely when the information is highly negative. People with a highly anxious personality may display reverse mnemic neglect—recalling more negative information than the average person.

8. Memory Distrust

It may be possible for someone to remember committing a crime and confess to the crime, even without engaging in any criminal activity. Studies exploring common police interrogation techniques show factors such as long periods of solitary confinement, manipulative interviews, the presence of psychological vulnerabilities in the interviewee, mental contamination, and a lack of support during the interrogation process may prompt people to reconstruct false memories and confess to crimes they did not commit.

Memory distrust may also be induced in everyday situations. In one study, 50 undergraduate students were falsely accused of exam fraud. The researchers found the presentation of false technical evidence and false eyewitness testimony were the two factors most likely to promote memory distrust and elicit a false confession.

In another study, only three interview sessions were needed to convince 70% of participants that they committed a police-warranted crime during their teenage years. The participants were induced to construct detailed memories of the criminal activity, even though none of the crimes had occurred.

9. Attention Saturation

Many might think it is easier to recall details of things we see every day. However, researchers have discovered the human memory tends to omit details about objects we perceive as unimportant, even if we see these objects on a daily basis. This occurrence is referred to as attention saturation.

In a recent experiment involving 85 undergraduate students, only one person was able to correctly draw the Apple logo—despite how confident most participants felt in remembering what the logo looked like before the experiment. Similar effects are seen when people are asked to describe the features of a penny (for example, which direction Lincoln is facing) or the exact location of fire extinguishers they walk past each day.

Experts believe attention saturation is an important facet of human memory, as it allows people to focus on the things they think are more important. Researchers suggest perfect memory would be overwhelming and mentally maladaptive for the average human.


  1. Bauer, P. J. (2004, December). Oh Where, Oh Where Have Those Early Memories Gone?: A Developmental Perspective on Childhood Amnesia. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2004/12/bauer.aspx
  2. Bergen, S. V., Jelicic, M., & Merckelbach, H. (2008). Interrogation techniques and memory distrust. Psychology, Crime & Law, 14(5), 425-434. doi:10.1080/10683160701822533
  3. Castillo, Stephanie. (2015, March 12). The Apple logo is ubiquitous, which is why we can’t remember what it looks like. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/apple-logo-ubiquitous-which-explains-why-we-cant-remember-what-it-looks-325486
  4. Dodson, C. S., Johnson, M. K., & Schooler, J. W. (1997). The verbal overshadowing effect: Why descriptions impair face recognition. Mem Cogn Memory & Cognition, 25(2), 129-139. doi:10.3758/bf03201107
  5. Marcus, G. (2009, March 23). Total Recall: The Woman Who Can’t Forget. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2009/03/ff-perfectmemory/
  6. Mnemic Neglect. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.greenlab.vcu.edu/research/mnemic_neglect.html
  7. Robbins, G. (2006, March 13). UCI studies woman who can’t forget. Retrieved from http://www.ocregister.com/articles/remember-37147-memory-day.html
  8. Seelig, D., Wang, A.-L., Jaganathan, K., Loughead, J. W., Blady, S. J., Childress, A. R., … Langleben, D. D. (2014). Low Message Sensation Health Promotion Videos Are Better Remembered and Activate Areas of the Brain Associated with Memory Encoding. PLoS ONE, 9(11), e113256. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0113256
  9. Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological Science, 26(3), 291-301. doi:10.1177/0956797614562862
  10. The woman who can remember everything. (2008, May 9). Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1940420/The-woman-who-can-remember-everything.html
  11. Transient global amnesia. (2014, July 18). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/transient-global-amnesia/basics/definition/con-20032746
  12. Vredeveldt, A., Baddeley, A. D. and Hitch, G. J. (2014), The effectiveness of eye-closure in repeated interviews. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 19: 282–295. doi: 10.1111/lcrp.12013

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  • Leave a Comment
  • brax

    June 20th, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    I wish that I could remember more stuff from when I was younger

  • Josie

    June 20th, 2016 at 11:45 AM

    haha yes I know that I weed out the stuff that I think is not important
    The thing is I guess I fail to see how it could then be important to someone else for me to make the effort to remember.

  • Delita

    June 21st, 2016 at 9:25 AM

    There are times that we can’t remember that is probably a good thing.
    Protection from what we may not need to remember.

  • Darrell

    June 23rd, 2016 at 5:43 PM

    Have you ever had those questions like are you really remembering what happened at a particular time or is it that you have been sort of tainted by the things that other people have said about it?
    It can be hard to know sometimes when there are questions what is actually real and what you think that you believe given other people’s statements about it.

  • chip

    June 24th, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    My guess is that for someone who has PTSD the thought or experience of having a flashback could be particularly terrifying. II would suspect that it would rarely be something good that they are flashing back to.

  • Pam

    June 26th, 2016 at 5:22 AM

    Would we rather be the person who chooses to remember nothing about the bad things that they have done in life or the person who chooses to revel in them?

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