How your mind might be playing tricks…
The first day of school is one of many people’s first memories. Or perhaps you have a vivid image of yourself as a child, playing in the garden with brothers and sisters. You may even be able to visualise exactly what you were wearing at the time or how your hair was styled. But there’s a problem with these memories. They’re unlikely to be true!
In her book The Memory Illusion, Dr Julia Shaw, senior lecturer and psychological researcher at London South Bank University, examines how many of our precious memories have been manipulated or made up. And it’s not just our early memories. Here Dr Shaw gives a few examples of how fallible our memories can be.
Do you remember being born?
Many people claim they can remember being born or being a baby. However, Dr Shaw says the brains of babies are not physiologically capable of forming and storing long-term memories, and that the age for having memories that can last into adulthood is around three and a half. She does understand the desire to remember though.
She says: ‘It’s natural to try to have a beginning, middle and end. We all want to make sense of our lives and remember.’
Even between the ages of three and a half and seven, we have very few memories.
Dr Shaw says: ‘I approach memories from that age very sceptically. Just because something is complex and emotional and feels real doesn’t mean that it is.’
If you’re wondering how you can ‘remember’ such things so clearly, Dr Shaw says it may be as simple as the power of suggestion. When your mum tells you a story of something funny that happened when you were two, you want to join in with enjoying that ‘memory’. To work out whether a childhood memory is true, look for evidence to show it really happened.
Dr Shaw explains: ‘Consider if something suggested the memory to you or if you remembered it on your own. If you spontaneously remember something, it’s more likely to be a real memory.’
Do you really do more chores?
It may seem that you do all the tidying up at home and it’s always you who tackles the pile of dishes after dinner. You could be right — or the feeling that chores are unfairly carried out by you all the time could be down to faulty memory.
Dr Shaw says we have a tendency to overestimate our positive qualities and underestimate our negative traits. This means you’re more likely to remember the times you pulled on the Marigolds and forget the times your partner did the dishes.
Dr Shaw explains that there’s less sensory input in watching someone else carry out a task than there is in doing the task yourself. Therefore you’re less likely to remember the times your partner carried out chores. If who does the lion’s share in your home is a source of arguments, Dr Shaw has some recommendations.
She says: ‘Pay more attention to what your partner does. If you pay attention to stuff, you’re more likely to remember it. Or ask your partner to tell you when they do things, for example, “I just took the bins out” or “I’ve done the dishes”, so you will be more likely to remember.’
Do you think you’re good at multi-tasking?
While many of us like to feel we’re great at juggling lots of things at once, Dr Shaw says the way our memory and attention span work makes multi-tasking impossible.
She says: ‘When you think you’re multi-tasking, you’re actually just “task switching”.’
Dr Shaw likens this to a TV set — while there are many channels to choose from, we can only flick through them one at a time. She explains that our short-term working memory can hold on to only a certain number of things simultaneously.
She says: ‘It’s like driving and talking at the same time. You can do both but you probably won’t remember the drive unless something dramatic happens.’
Dr Shaw says rapid task switching may be bad for productivity and concentration.
Do you overestimate your looks?
Even the way you perceive your appearance is affected by memory, according to Dr Shaw.
You can picture your face in your mind’s eye, but this is unlikely to match the real thing.
Dr Shaw says: ‘The way you remember yourself is the best version of you. You’re more likely to remember those great pictures of yourself that you posted on social media than how you appear at other times.
‘Even “mirror you” looks different. You might strike a certain pose or look at yourself from your best angle.’
Researchers found that when people were presented with two versions of themselves, one where they’d been edited to appear more attractive and another of them as they are, they were more likely to pick the edited one as the true representation of themselves. But the good news is that while you may not be as good-looking as you imagine, you are probably more attractive to others! Experts believe that other people see us as 20 per cent more attractive than we think we are. This is because when you look in the mirror, you judge only your physical self. You don’t see your personality.
Remember, beauty is only skin deep. Personality plays a far greater role when it comes to others finding you attractive.
Edited by Phoebe Jackson-Edwards
The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory, by Dr Julia Shaw, is available from Amazon, priced £14.99.
Dr Shaw’s top tips to boost your memory
1 Use acronyms, rhymes or mental imagery, as these techniques have been proven to help people remember things.
2 Recreate an environment. If you’re taking exams it’s a good idea to recreate the way you studied. If you always have a cup of coffee before you start studying, have one before the exam.
3 Pay close attention. If you watch something closely or even ask someone to describe what they’re doing, you’re more likely to remember.