Selective memory: why do we only remember what matters to us?

We call the cases of selective memory to those situations in which a person seems to show an exceptional ability to remember information which reinforces their point of view but which is significantly forgettable on other information related to the first but which they find uncomfortable.

We speak of this selective memory with sarcasm, which implies that it is a sign of argumentative weakness or having an illusory vision on certain subjects. As if it were something exceptional, outside of the normative way of thinking.

However, the truth is that selective memory is by no means a mere resource that some people use to hold on to beliefs and ideologies that can be endangered with some ease. Human memory, in general, tends to work the same in all people, and not just in terms of specific and controversial topics, but also in terms of private beliefs and autobiographical memories.

In short, healthy people with good debating abilities without constantly clinging to dogmas are also subjects who reflect and remember through the filter of selective memory.

Selective memory and identity

Memory is the basis of our identity. After all, we are a mixture of our genetics and the experiences we have had, and the latter can only leave a mark on us in memory.

However, this means that our identity is a compressed version of all the events in which we have participated directly or indirectly, as if each of the days that we have lived are archived somewhere in the human brain in equivalent quantities and well proportioned to each other. . To believe that would be to assume that our memory is reproductive, a sort of exact record of what we have perceived and thought. And it’s not: we just remember what is meaningful to us.

This is what selective memory is. By making the content of our own memories linked to those values, needs and motivations that define how we perceive things, shifting some memories to long-term memory and others not.

Create meaningful memories

Since the research of psychologist Gordon Bower has shown the connection between our emotional states and the way we memorize and recall all kinds of information, the idea that our memory functions in a biased way, even in healthy brains, has gained popularity in psychology.

Today, in fact, the idea that memory is selective by default is starting to take hold. For example, some studies show that, deliberately, we are able to use strategies to forget memories that do not suit usWhile the lines of research dealing with the subject of cognitive dissonance show that we have a certain propensity to fundamentally memorize things which do not call into question beliefs important to us and which can therefore be linked to a clear meaning.

The process would go like this: we find information that does not match our beliefs and therefore causes us discomfort because it challenges ideas that are important to us and to which we have devoted time and effort.

However, the fact that this information had an impact on us doesn’t have to make it better remembered to be relevant. In fact, its importance as something that causes us discomfort may be a valid reason, in itself, to manipulate and distort this memory to the point of making it unrecognizable and ultimately disappearing as such.

The selective memory bias

That the normal operation of the memory is selective is very relevant, because it is further proof that our nervous system is made more to survive than to know the environment in which we live faithfully and relatively objectively.

Additionally, selective memory research allows us to seek strategies to take advantage of this phenomenon by exploring techniques for making traumatic and generally unpleasant memories a non-limiting factor in people’s quality of life.

Be clear that there is no single correct way to remember your own life trajectory, but rather we have the opportunity to choose between equally biased visions of who we are and what we have doneThis can serve to break down the stigma about trauma therapy therapies and encourage us to seek adaptive ways to make our memory a factor that contributes to the well-being of our lifestyle, rather than causing us problems.

A more realistic view

Selective memory is proof that neither who we are nor what we think we know about the world are objective truths that we have access to just because we have lived for a long time. In the same way that our attention is focused on certain things in the present and leaves out others, something very similar happens with memory.

Since the world is always filled with a lot of information that we can never process in its entirety, we have to choose which one we should deal with, and it is something that we do consciously or unconsciously. The exception is not what we are not aware of and which we do not know well, but what we have a relatively complete knowledge. By default, we’re not that much aware of what’s happened, what’s going on, or what’s going to happen.

This is partly positive and partly negative, as we have already seen. It is positive because it allows information which is not relevant to be omitted, but it is negative because the existence of bias is introduced. Having this clear will allow us to have unrealistic expectations about our ability to know ourselves and everything around us.

Bibliographical references:

  • Ardila, R. (2004). Psychology in the future. Madrid: Pyramid.
  • Gross, Richard (2010). Psychology: the science of mind and behavior. London: Hachette UK.
  • Papalia, D. and Wendkos, S. (1992). Psychology. Mexico: McGraw-Hill, p. 9.
  • Triglia, Adrián; Regader, Bertrand; García-Allen, Jonathan (2016). Psychologically speaking. Paidós.

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