A lay view of human memory might well be characterised as a belief that memories are recorded and stored rather like an archive of video recordings to be retrieved and replayed at will. Research over decades has demonstrated that this is not accurate. The general view that psychologists hold of memory is that memories are stored not as whole narratives, but as fragments. Fragments of memory are reconstituted into narratives at the time of their retrieval. I would note that functions of memory are clearly much more complex than the description I have just given; but I believe my description represents a simple overview that accurately contrasts with the lay version of memory noted above.
Whatever the mechanisms of memory, most of us believe that our memories are more or less accurate. We also believe that we are better at remembering important events than trivial events. Research has consistently shown, however, that our memories are probably far less accurate than we believe them to be. Our memories are sufficient for most practical purposes as demonstrated by the fact that we can function in our day-to-day lives.
But there are occasions when normal people in normal situations ‘remember’ things that have not occurred. This ‘remembering’ of events that have not occurred is known in psychology as confabulation. Confabulation is also referred to in more general contexts as ‘False Memory Syndrome’ and sometimes ‘Recovered Memory Syndrome’. Confabulation of memory is one example of our brains/minds filling in the gaps of missing information in order to make sense of the world. Both our visual system and our auditory system also routinely perform this task, and indeed sometimes get it wrong.
Most of us at some time or other have had the frustrating experience of losing our keys. In fact some of us (me included) would lose them every day if we did not have a regular place in which to keep them. Sometimes we lose our keys and simply cannot remember what we did with them; other times we believe we can remember what we did with them, but they are not where they are supposed to be.
So for example, if I go to my blue jacket (the one I remember putting my keys in yesterday) and the keys are not there and then after an extensive search I discover them in my brown jacket, I may conclude that some silly bugger who may not be me has moved the keys from one jacket to another. I may have a clear memory of placing the keys in my blue jacket; however, if I am the only person who had access to my jackets, the memory of placing my keys in the blue jacket that does not match the reality of placing my keys in the brown jacket is an example of the confabulation of memory.
This example is of course very trivial and something that most of us may have experienced at some time or other. It merely illustrates that confabulation is a normal artefact of memory. Unfortunately, this failure of memory sometimes occurs in much more dramatic situations.
For now I want to be clear that confabulation is a normal artefact of memory that happens to the healthily functioning brains/minds of most people at some time or another.
In my next post I want to talk about groups of people who are more prone to confabulation than others.