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The Seven Sins of Memory

How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

By Daniel L. Schacter
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The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers by Daniel L. Schacter

The Seven Sins of Memory (2002) offers a close look at the seven ways our memory can let us down: from why we always lose our car keys to why some people are haunted by recurring negative thoughts. The book also discusses how to mitigate these shortcomings and why they’re actually trade-offs for massive memory benefits. By examining how our memory works and its faults, we see that these weaknesses are actually just side effects of a very clever system.

Key idea 1 of 9

All memories are liable to fade and weaken over time, but there are ways to keep the memories you want.

Have you ever rolled up to a party and been greeted by someone you didn’t recognize, only to find out that you’d met just a few months before? These kinds of embarrassing moments can happen to anyone and are caused by the first of the seven deadly sins of human memory: transience.  

Memories are transient – many memories disappear over time without us realizing it.

A study conducted by a group of researchers in California demonstrated just how faulty our memories can be over time. The study was carried out after O. J. Simpson’s notorious acquittal in his famous 1995 murder trial.

Researchers asked a group of students to provide detailed descriptions of how they came to learn about the trial outcome. Fifteen months on, only 50 percent could give accurate accounts of where they were; three years on, this dropped to 30 percent.

This isn’t a surprising discovery, and the fact that our memories lose accuracy over time is something we’ve known for a while. In 1885, the German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus developed the forgetting curve to show how memories fade over time.

Ebbinghaus memorized a list of nonsense words and tested himself. After nine hours, he had forgotten 60 percent of them. By the end of the month, 75 percent were obliterated from his memory.

The good news is that there are techniques you can use to combat transient memory loss.

Memory techniques have been around for a long time. The ancient Greeks developed memory tricks called mnemonics, which work by linking new information to places or numbers, making the new concepts much easier to recall than decontextualized bits of info.

In everyday life, a simple way to harness the power of mnemonics is to associate new information to concepts and images that are already meaningful to you.

So, say you meet a well-built man named Bruce. Following in the Greek tradition, imagine how Bruce would “bruise” you in a scuffle. Make the image vivid enough, and next time you see him you’ll have no problem remembering Bruce the bruiser!

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