When Memory Fails: How Your Brain Edits Memories

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerFebruary 10, 2014

Although you can remember every detail of your wedding or your child’s birth, a new study shows that your memory cannot flashback to that day like you’d expect it to. Our memories have been found to be modified, rather than static, and are instead, a tool that can help us adapt to our environments.

Memory As An Adaptation Tool

A new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience shows that every time we collect a memory, we can modify that memory. These memories are then constantly updated with new information that helps us make better decisions in the present. Researcher Joel Voss said, “Memory is not intended to allow you to remember what you did last week, or remember your childhood. The point is to help you make good choices right now.”

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To conduct the study, Voss and fellow researchers asked 17 participants to look at an image of a landscape with a small object on top of it. The participants were then shown another scene with the object in a new location and were asked to move the object to its location in the original image. None of the participants were able to correctly move the object. The participants were later shown the original scene with the object in three places: the original location, the second location, and a new location. Participants incorrectly chose the second location every time. Researchers believe that this is because their memory from the original location was overwritten.

When Memory Fails

While it may be disturbing for us to realize that our most treasured memories may not be exactly how we remember them, the adaptation of our memories allows for us to put the present in the past and make better decisions now.

However, for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, research suggest that their memory may be frozen in time. “The new research also suggests that memory problems like those seen in Alzheimer’s could involved a “freezing” of these memories – an inability to adapt the memory to the present,” Voss said. This is also true for those with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. The process is interrupted and memories become stuck in one place. This means they are not able to adapt the memory to the present. They remember grown loved ones as children, deceased relatives as living, and their life the way it was in their memory.

The findings help us to understand another aspect of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as well as how imagination works and allows us to better understand the people in our social circles.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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