As a memory researcher, I have long been intrigued by the phenomenon of memory failures. What are the different ways that memory can get us into trouble? Bringing together
everything I knew of memory’s imperfections, lapses, mistakes and distortions, I hit on a way of thinking that helped to make things fall in place. I propose that memory’s malfunctions can
be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or “sins”, which I call transience, absent- mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. Just like the ancient seven deadly sins, the memory sins occur frequently in everyday life and can have serious consequences for all of us.
Transience, absent-mindedness and blocking are sins of omission: we fail to bring to mind a desired fact, event or idea. Transience refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time. It is probably not difficult for you to remember now what you have been doing for the past several hours. But if I ask you about the same activities six weeks, six months, or six years from now, chances are you will remember less and less. Transience is a basic feature of memory, and the culprit in many memory problems.
Absent-mindedness involves a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory. Absent-minded memory errors – misplacing keys or eye-glasses, or forgetting a lunch appointment – typically occur because we are preoccupied with distracting issues or
concerns, and do not focus attention on what we need to remember. The desired information is not lost over time; it is either never registered in memory to begin with, or not sought after at the moment it is needed, because attention is focused elsewhere.
The third sin, blocking, entails a thwarted search for information we may be desperately trying to retrieve. We have all failed to produce a name to accompany a familiar face. This frustrating experience happens even though we are attending carefully to the task
at hand, and even though the desired name has not faded from our minds – as we become acutely aware when we unexpectedly retrieve the blocked name hours or days later.
In contrast to these three sins of omission, the next four sins of misattribution suggestibility, bias, and persistence are all sins of commission: some form of memory is present, but it is either incorrect or unwanted. The sin of misattribution involves assigning a memory to the wrong source: mistaking fantasy for reality, or incorrectly remembering that a friend told you a bit of trivia that you actually read about in a newspaper. Misattribution is far
more common than people realize, and has potentially profound implications in legal settings. The related sin of suggestibility refers to memories that are implanted as a result of leading questions, comments, or suggestions when a person is trying to call up a past experience. Like misattribution, suggestibility is especially relevant to – and can sometimes create havoc within- the legal system.
The sin of bias reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we remember our pasts. We often unknowingly or unconsciously edit or rewrite our
previous experiences in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident, or even an extended period of our lives, which says more about how we feel now than about what happened then.
The seventh sin – persistence – entails repeated recall of disturbing information or events that we would prefer to banish from our minds altogether: remembering what we cannot forget, even though we wish that we could. Everyone is familiar with persistence to some degree: recall the last time that you suddenly awoke at 3:00 AM, unable to keep out of your mind a painful blunder on the job or a disappointing result on an important exam. In more extreme cases of serious depression or traumatic experience, persistence can be disabling and even life-threatening.
In the passage, the term “transience” refers to