Memory & recall
The most common metaphor for how memory works is a movie. Our eyes and ears watch the movie, and our minds store it away like a video. This video can then be replayed on demand – and that is a memory.
Unfortunately, this is a really bad metaphor on two levels.
First, we don’t actually see and hear everything in the first place. Our perception is an interpretive process. We only take in essential bits of experiences, and our mind fills in the rest to give us a cohesive image of the world around us.
Second, when we remember something, we only recall certain snippets of the event – certain sights, sounds, emotions, textures – and again, our minds seamlessly fill in the gaps for the rest without us being aware. Every time we remember, we construct that event in our minds from those snippets. Next time we recall the event, it will be based on that new construction. The more often we remember something, the more divergent it is from reality.
The constructive nature of episodic memory means our memories are open to bias, suggestion, or as Elizabeth Loftus‘s research has demonstrated, even complete fabrication leading to innocent people being imprisoned. This is why memories ‘recovered’ under hypnosis – from ritual abuse, to alien abductions – are now inadmissible as evidence in most courts.
So perhaps the metaphor for memory should be more like a collage? We start with a few cut out pictures, and use paper and pen to arrange the pictures and connect them in a meaningful way.
WNYC’s Radiolab Memory and Forgetting
Schacter & Addis (2007) The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future (PDF, 410kB)
The British False Memory Society Twelve Myths About False Memories