You Have To Turn On Your Memory To Make It Work

“Memory is the thing you forget with.” —Alexander Chase, Perspectives

In A Nutshell

Many of us believe we’ll remember details of our experiences just because we pay attention to what we’re seeing and doing. However, according to psychologists from Penn State University, we have to make a conscious effort to turn on our memories, as though hitting the “record” button on a camcorder. Otherwise, we’ll suffer from “attribute amnesia,” the inability to remember a bit of information needed to complete a task, even if we just finished it a second earlier.

The Whole Bushel

Memory refers to the way we use our brains to encode, save, and recall information that we’ve sensed through sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. We used to think that as long as we paid attention to what we were doing—whether placing car keys on a hook by the door or studying for an exam—we’d remember it.

It seems logical. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology even performed a study a few years ago that appeared to reinforce that conclusion. They found that if you pay attention to what you’re doing, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released in the brain, which then affects star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes that make sense of visual images. When neurons in the visual cortex are stimulated this way, you have a longer-lasting memory of the things you see.

But new research suggests that’s not the full story. Apparently, our memories are much more selective than originally thought.

According to psychologists from Pennsylvania State University, we have to make a conscious effort to “turn on” our memories, just like hitting the “record” button on a camcorder to copy what’s seen through the lens. If we don’t, we’ll experience an effect called “attribute amnesia,” the inability to recall a piece of information needed to complete a task, even if we just finished it a second earlier.

Basically, this means we’ll forget even the simplest bits of information if we don’t think that we’ll need to remember them. It doesn’t matter whether we pay attention to what we see or not. Attribute amnesia revolves around our expectation of needing to remember something. So if a teacher tells you that you’ll need to know a particular fact for a test, you’re more likely to remember that fact than if the teacher said you wouldn’t need to know it or doesn’t mention it at all. Even if you paid the same amount of attention in any of those cases, it’s the expectation of needing that information that helps you turn on that memory.

The psychologists came to this conclusion by giving 100 undergraduate students a simple memory test. The students were divided into smaller groups and asked to recall colors, letters, or numbers they saw on a screen.

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Each group was shown four characters, in any combination of letters and numbers, laid out in a square on the screen. If, for example, the square contained one letter and three numbers, the group would be told that they’d need to later identify which corner contained the letter. After a certain time, the characters would disappear and the group members would report the previous location of the letter. It was an easy memory exercise; the group members almost never made a mistake.

This test was repeated several times. Then the group members were asked a question they didn’t expect: From the four characters currently appearing on the screen, which one had been shown on the previous screen?

Three quarters of the group got it wrong. The 25 percent who got it right were no different than the percentage that would have randomly guessed the correct answer. This same result happened when the group members were told to name the locations of colors, odd numbers, and even numbers.

“The information we asked them about in the surprise question was important, because we had just asked them to use it,” said one of the researchers, Hui Chen. “It was not irrelevant to the task they were given.” If traditional theories of memory were correct, the group members should have performed better because they were paying attention to the information on the screen. For the researchers, this suggests that someone’s expectation of needing to remember a piece of information impacts their ability to recall it.

After the first surprise question, the group members were given the same question on their next quiz. However, after this type of question was expected, the percentage of correct responses jumped to an average of 65 percent to 95 percent in the subsequent experiments.

Just as when a teacher tells you what’s going to be on the exam, you store information in memory that you expect to be asked to remember. However, the Penn State researchers believe selective memory is a good thing. Otherwise, we’d waste our brain power recalling things that probably aren’t important.

Show Me The Proof

Medical News Today: Memories need to be ‘switched on’ and are enhanced by emotion
Psychological Science: Amnesia for Object Attributes
USA Today: How does human memory work?
Business Insider: Why Thinking About Paying Attention To Something Helps You Remember It

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