The limits and failures of human memory

Not remembering if we locked the car, going to get the keys or the cell phone and having it on hand, not remembering where we parked, and of course forgetting what we were going to say. These are everyday and in some ways funny situations in which memory shows itself against us.

All of these events make the person who experiences them wonder if they have a bad memory or if they are not very intelligent. Even the most hypochondriac will consider going to the doctor for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

But there are reasons to stay calm; these experiences do not show any intellectual deficit or signs of neurodegenerative diseases, but rather it is a common psychological phenomenon which is due to the limitations of our short-term memory.

Recommended article: “Types of memory: how does our brain store memories?”

Have I closed the car? Short-term memory and its mistakes

Remember that short-term memory is the one that allows us to interact with the current environment, Because thanks to this, a small amount of information is actively kept in mind, so that it is immediately available, at least for a short period of time.

When we have a conversation, do mathematical calculations, or talk to ourselves, we are directly using this memory. however, this memory is not perfect, but quite the contrary.

The magic number 7 p.m.

the psychologist George A. Miller he was the first to investigate these phenomena and published an essay titled “The Magic Number 7:00, More or Less Two” in which he reflects the limits of our ability to process the information we find in terms of memory close range (MCP). According to Miller, short-term memory has a limited storage capacity, which is between 5 and 9, or 7 or more. It is a biological limitation posed by our nervous system.

This means that when we currently hold 7 units of information, we are not able to perceive what is beyond these “data packets” because all external stimuli have no room to enter our. memory at that particular time.

The role of attention

Attention is the psychological process that goes hand in hand with short term memory, which is also very limited. Miller clarified that it is possible to increase the number of items a person processes if what they perceive is a matter of importance and value to the individual. However, if you are not interested and you are already occupying the space, it will not be stored in your memory.

This explains that even if we occupy all the capacity of our short-term memory, if we perceive (even unconsciously) a spider in front of us, all our attentional resources will be directed towards it and not towards our reflection. Therein lies the functionality of this memory being limited, at a time when man struggled to survive with other species, these threatening stimuli could not do without this space so scarce in memory.

Conclusions and reflections

Maybe now you understand why you often don’t listen to someone who’s been talking to you for three minutes. What you had in mind while this person was talking to you occupied those 7 plus minus two packets of information that you are able to keep and obviously it was much more important to you about your own business than what that person told you.

We can also bring up the situation we initially commented on whether the car is locked or not. When we get out of the car, we usually do it in a hurry and thinking about what to do after parking. That is why at the time of closing the car our short-term memory is completely full of information and although we have closed the car unconsciously and automatically (because it is a very routine action), being occupied with our consciousness. , for us it is as if we had not lived it.

Something similar happens in all those situations where the number 7 once again puts on the table that the human being is not perfect, but drawn from his limited psychological processes.

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