Selective Memory? You're Not Alone

My husband will tell you that I have a terrible memory. I frequently walk out the door without my keys or my purse, and the number of times I’ve reached a grocery store checkout only to realize I’ve forgotten my wallet at home is too embarrassing to share. I’m also terrible with names, and have trouble remembering appointments and the details of conversations I had just days before. I chalk it up to the exhaustion of working full-time and coming home for a “second shift” as the mother of a toddler - but new research is uncovering more about why we remember and what we remember. 

According to researchers at Pennsylvania State University, memory is much more selective than previously believed, and people may have to consciously “turn on” their memories to recall even the simplest details. The researchers believe this may be an evolutionary function, where we choose not to store information we don’t believe we’ll have to use later. Brad Wyble, assistant professor of Psychology at Penn State, said “people have trouble remembering even very simple pieces of information when they do not expect to have to remember them.”

The researchers tested the memories of 100 undergraduate students. Trial participants were shown four characters arranged in a square - for example, three letters and one number - and were asked to report which corner a specific letter was in after the screen was turned off. Very few errors were made at this stage.

After this task had been repeated multiple times, the participants were asked a surprise question - which of the four characters they had just seen was also on the previous screen? Only 25% of respondents chose the correct answer, which correlates perfectly with random chance.

The participants were then put through the tests again, but this time they anticipated the second question and performed much better when it was asked. 

The research shows that people’s expectations play a definite role in what they remember, even for information they are specifically using. The researchers compared the creation of a memory with turning on a camcorder - making a conscious decision to remember a certain moment or piece of information.

If you’re like me and struggle with your memory, help may come from a surprising source - walnuts. Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles say that memory was better in adult test participants that consumed walnuts, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. So swap your usual mid-morning snack for walnuts to enjoy the benefits - I’ll be trying it to see if I remember my wallet more often!


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