Memory: An Overall Assessment
It seems, therefore, that false memories are essentially undetectable and unavoidable. In addition, we’ve seen that the errors in our recollection can be large and consequential. Does all of this mean that we should lament the poor quality of human memory? The answer to this question is an emphatic no. It’s certainly true that we sometimes remember less than we’d like (a common experience for students taking an exam). It’s also true that our recollection is sometimes mistaken—so the past as it actually unfolded is rather different from the past we remember. Even so, there’s reason to believe our memories function in just the way we want them to.
How could this be? One point to bear in mind here is that, even with the memory errors we’ve discussed, our memories are correct far more often than not—so we usually remember the past accurately, in detail, and for a very long time. It’s also important to highlight a point that has come up already—namely, that the mechanisms leading to memory error are mechanisms that help us most of the time; and so, in a sense, the errors are just the price we pay to gain other advantages. For example, errors in the misinformation paradigm arise (in part) because our memories are densely interconnected with each other; this is what allows elements to be trans-planted from one remembered episode to another. But the connections from one memory to the next are, of course, there for a purpose: They’re the retrieval paths that make memory search possible. Thus, to avoid the errors, we would need to restrict the connections—but if we did that, we’d lose the ability to locate our own memories within long-term storage!
The memory connections that lead to error also help us in other ways. Our environ-ment, after all, is in many ways predictable—and it’s enormously useful for us to exploit that predictability. There’s little point in scrutinizing a kitchen to make sure there’s a stove in the room, because in the vast majority of cases there is. So why take the time to confirm the obvious? Likewise, there’s little point in taking special note that, yes, this restaurant does have menus and that, yes, people in the restaurant are eating and not having their cars repaired. These too are obvious points, and it would be a waste of time to give them special notice.
On these grounds, a reliance on schematic knowledge is a good thing. Schemas guide our attention to what’s informative in a situation, rather than what’s self-evident (e.g., Gordon, 2006); they also guide our inferences at the time of recall. If this use of schemas sometimes leads us astray, this may be a small price to pay for the gain in effi-ciency that schemas allow.
Finally, what about forgetting? This too may be a blessing in disguise, because sometimes it’s to our advantage to remember less and forget more. For example, think about all the times in your life when you’ve been with a particular friend. These episodes are related to each other in an obvious way, so they’re likely to become interconnected in your memory. This will cause difficulties if you want to remember which episode is which, and whether you had a particular conversation last Tuesday or the day before. But rather than lamenting this as an example of forgetting, we may want to celebrate what’s going on here. Because of the “interference,” all of the episodes will merge in your thoughts, so that what resides in memory is one integrated package containing all of your knowledge about your friend. This is, in fact, the way that much of your general knowledge is created! In other words, the same blurring together that makes it difficult to remember episodes also makes it possible to think in a general way, with a focus on what diverse experiences have in common rather than on what makes each experience unique. Without this blurring together, our capacity for thinking in general terms might be dramatically impaired.
It seems, then, that our overall assessment of memory can be rather upbeat. We’ve dis-cussed a wide range of memory errors, but these errors are the exception rather than the rule. In addition, we’ve now seen that in most cases the errors are a by-product of mecha-nisms that otherwise help us—to locate our memories within storage, to be efficient in our contact with the world, and to form general knowledge. Thus, even with the errors, even with forgetting, it seems that human memory functions in a fashion that serves us well.
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