What Happens When We Remember
Retrieving memories helps us function. Doing so can also change the memories.
Posted November 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Memory can assist planning for the future.
- Retrieving a memory can strengthen its representation, making it easier to recall in the future.
- Retrieving a memory can make it difficult to retrieve other related memories.
We value memory for its ability to transport us back to a prior event and provide us with the opportunity to re-experience the past, vividly and emotionally. Reflecting back on these events can be inherently pleasurable, and this ability serves important functions in our day-to-day lives (Pillemer, 1992).
Memories of our past help us to understand ourselves better. When asked about who we are, or about our strengths and weaknesses, we often think about the obstacles we have encountered and the moments that brought us joy; by knowing what we have been through, we are able to formulate our personal identity. Recalling past events not only helps us know ourselves better, but it can also help us to connect with others. Finding common ground in similar past experiences can instantly create a bond. It is through the sharing of joyous or challenging anecdotes that people begin to trust one another.
Memories can also serve the important function of helping us plan for the future. Sometimes, just remembering the gist of an event can be quite helpful for this function of memory. We might plan to bring a lunch to work because we remember that the cafeteria gets crowded. Or we might remember our appreciation when an old friend wrote to us and therefore decide to write to someone with whom we have lost touch.
Other times, the specifics can be helpful: Being able to clearly remember a particular action may also make it easier to envision doing it again in the future. For example, people who better remember times when they helped others are more likely to engage in similar helping behaviors in the future (Gaesser & Schacter, 2014).
What Happens When We Remember Repeatedly
In all of these ways, remembering the past helps us to interact with the world around us. However, the act of remembering is more than pulling up a record of the past and using the information in the moment. Remembering is an active process that can actually change a memory every time it is brought to mind. Recalling a past event can strengthen the representation of that memory, making it easier to retrieve in the future (Rowland, 2014). This is why memories that we discuss repeatedly often feel easier to recall.
It might seem obvious that remembering something one day will make it easier to remember the next. But less intuitively, retrieving a memory can actually alter its contents, making it slightly different the next time we bring it to mind.
We often talk about memory as re-experiencing a past event, but a memory is not an exact replication of what originally happened. Whenever a memory is brought to mind, it becomes susceptible to changes. New information learned since the original event, whether true or false, can be incorporated into the memory, so that it is later remembered as part of that event (Elsey et al., 2018). In this way, remembering an event is less like a rerun of an old show, and more like following a screenplay: There is a plot that stays generally consistent, but the exact dialogue and the way scenes are portrayed may change from one production to the next.
Bugs in the System?
Remembering a particular piece of information not only makes it more vulnerable to change, but also makes it harder to remember other, related information that has not been recalled.
For example, say we have a list of items that we need to pick up on our way home from work: five fruits from the farm stand (apples, oranges, bananas, blueberries, and strawberries), and five items from the pharmacy (tissues, cold medicine, a thermometer, cough drops, and hand sanitizer). On the drive, we hear a commercial for a pie stand, which reminds us that we want to make sure to get apples and blueberries, but we aren’t reminded of the other fruits.
When it’s time to remember our list, it’s easy to see why we would be more likely to remember apples and blueberries compared to any of the other items. However, we are also less likely to remember oranges, bananas, and strawberries compared to any of the pharmacy items. The act of remembering a subset of our fruit list made the unremembered items even harder to remember later (see Anderson, 2003). The same process can happen when remembering details of an event: Remembering some of the details of a particular event can strengthen their memory, but makes other details that were not remembered less likely to be remembered in the future.
It may seem maladaptive to have a memory system in which the memories that we trust so completely are easily and unintentionally altered. However, it is this system that allows us to learn from past events and to see the silver linings of an otherwise negative experience. By reframing a past event with new context that we can grow along with these memories and use them to maintain our personal identity, strengthen our relationships, and direct our future.
Anderson, M.C. (2003). Rethinking interference theory: Executive control and the mechanisms of forgetting. J. Mem. Lang, 47, 415-445.
Elsey, J.W.B., Van Ast, V.A., & Kindt, M. (2018). Human memory reconsolidation: A guiding framework and critical review of the evidence. Psychol. Bull, 144, 797-848.
Gaesser, B. & Schacter, D.L. (2014). Episodic simulation and episodic memory can increase intentions to help others. PNAS, 111, 4415-4420.
Pillemer, D.B. (1992). Remembering personal circumstances: A functional analysis. In Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “Flashbulb” Memories, ed. E. Winograd, U. Neisser, pp. 236-264. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rowland, C.A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: A meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychol. Bull, 140, 1432-1463.