Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you are both recalling a shared event or experience and realised that your memories of what took place or happened are quite different? I was chatting with a girl friend recently and we were reminiscing about a social event we had both attended and yet listening to her recall it was obvious that her memories of who we met and what was discussed and the entire evening were vastly different. Her recall was quite vivid with regard to a certain person we had been introduced to. She was able to remember his name (never a strong point for me in any situation!) what he looked like, his clothes, his manner, what had been talked about, and a number of details that I struggled to have any recall on.
The difference was not that my memory is inferior to hers. The difference is in the way we both laid down the memories of that event in our brains.
So what does make us remember some things and not others and how can two people at the same function have such vastly different recall?
Let’s start with how memories are formed. We are continuously bombarded with sensory input into our brain. Much of this is subconscious. Our brain then quickly decides whether this information is relevant or not in milliseconds. If deemed relevant, then it stays for up to one minute in our short term memory enabling us to remember things such as telephone numbers before typing them into our address books or mobile phones.
If however the brain decides to retain this information for longer, it is then stored as long term memory. We can do this through repetition ie repeating the telephone number to ourselves several times or associating the number to other information.
How strong that memory will be can be affected by a number of variables.
Firstly the amount of attention or concentration we give to the event. I know that if I’m talking to my husband and I’m pretty sure he’s not listening then sure as eggs if I then challenge him about what I may have just said. He wouldn’t have any idea!
Secondly emotion. Events associated with strong emotion are likely to be remembered much more easily and with more detail. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing on September 11th 2001when the twin towers were brought down? What about October 15th or November 6th of the same year? If there was no particular emotion attached to an event on those other days, chances are you won’t remember.
Thirdly sensory input of the event. If the memory is associated with a particular location such as a beach side resort you may remember the details of the sky being bright blue and cloudless, the aromas of exotic cooking, the sound of boats chugging across the water and the touch of warm sand on your skin. Combined together it paints a vivid picture for the memory banks.
Fourthly, do we have an interest or need to know that piece of information? My friend was clearly quite taken with her new friend and her interest allowed her to retain the details of the event. Whereas I had not.
Similarly for school students studying different subject, there is a strong motivation or need to know, so information on English, Maths and History is stored in long term memory, ready to be recalled (hopefully!) on the day of the exam.
So next time you are talking with someone about a shared event, be aware that your experiences may be vastly different, depending on whether you were paying attention, emotionally involved to the event, conscious of other things at the time around you and whether it was relevant to you individually.
That’s the beauty of our brains. We all like to do things differently for own unique experiences.