The Nature of Selective Memory

Justin Beiber's favourite colour is purple. No, I didn't google that. I was told that, maybe four years ago, by someone who was quite a big fan at the time. But the real question is, why did I remember that and yet my best friend's birthday seems to slip past me every year? Despite me knowing him for nearly my entire life?

Memory. Specifically, selective memory. But what is Selective Memory? Let's go to the Collins Dictionary:

1. euphemistic an ability to remember some facts while apparently forgetting others, especially when they are inconvenient
2. psychology the ability to retrieve certain facts and events but not others

Lot's of us have Selective Memory about a lot's of different moments and times from our past. Even the very recent. While alcohol (at least for we Irish, and especially when it comes to General Elections) can be used as a great excuse, we can't be drunk all of the time. So why can I remember the favourite colour of a musician I've never met, while I have to think about my boyfriend's favourite colour? (which is blue, in case your reading, love)

The answer is actually very simple. Well, it's not, actually. It's all about the way our brain processes the input we receive and which part of the brain it gets stored in. But I'll get to that in a bit. The initial answer is very simple. Emotion. Our memories and our emotions are linked nearly seamlessly. This isn't true 100% of the time, but, of course, nothing ever is.

So, returning to Mr. Beiber, I heard that “fact” while on a date. It was the first date I had been on following the breakup of a three-year relationship. I was nervous, excited, hopeful, and maybe a little scared. But why should that be relevant? Well…


Forming Memories

There are two main ways that we form memory, explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit would be "external" memories. Of events or facts or birthdays. These are memories associated with verbal or visual signals. Implicit memory is muscle memory, the memory of physical response.

I'm not going to deal with implicit memory here, though I should probably mention that these memories are still formed through similar processes.

Now, why did my emotions matter when I heard this fact that clearly did not matter? Well, it is straightforward enough, in situations where you feel genuine emotions you are more inclined to form a powerful memory. When in situations of low or non-existent emotional value it will be more difficult to form a memory that will last.

Advertisers and speech writers have been using our emotions for their own gain forever. They know that an advertisement that forms an emotional response, be it positive or negative, is far more likely to stay with you that just been given cold facts. And they use this knowledge, very successfully, so that, when you're next in the shops, deciding what to buy, you remember their ad, you remember their product, and more than likely, you will buy it.

We only need to glance at recent political events to see how emotions; and emotions induced while receiving information, influenced the selective memories of millions of people.

Modern internet journalism is another example of this. In the past, news was colder, more black and white facts. Depending on your outlook of what the facts were. Now writers are trying to get into your emotions first, and give the facts second. Because that's how people remember. I've been attempting to do it this entire time, and I’m not going stop. Because, our emotions, and our memory form the basis of we are. I'm not here presenting facts, I'm here asking, who are you?


Emotion; Past & Present

So, our feelings characterise not only whether a memory is good or bad, but also how strong it is. But, believe it or not, our emotions in the present can get mixed up as you are remembering the past. In fact, the emotions you are feeling while remembering can sometimes replace those you originally felt. Thus your own interpretation of your own memory becomes altered or maybe even distorted.

I recently read a great example that can explain this:

Let us say, god forbid, you are in a car accident. Your tyre bursts and the result is you come off the road and hit a post box. Now, you call you friends or your loved ones and you say “I've just been in a car crash.” which you have. But at this moment you are full of adrenaline, you're scared because of what happened, you're relieved because you're okay. You're nervous about your no claims bonus.

However, when you calm down, you assess the damage to yourself and your vehicle. And you realise it's not all as bad as you think. Then, a week later, you say to someone; “Oh yeah, I had a bit of bump in my car the other day.” What's changed? You still felt what you felt at the time, the shock, the anxiety. But now, looking back on it, you feel none of those things, and so, your perception of the event changes. It goes from being a terrifying crash to a mild bump. The past hasn't changed, the event still happened. But the way you look on it and experience it again as you remember it; has been altered.

This is the Nature of Selective Memory.

It relies on how you feel about something, not just at the time of the event, but at the time of remembering. But the main feature of this recollection is emotion. I can remember the colour purple clearly, because I can remember the day clearly. Because of the emotions tied into it. And it is these same emotions that can lead to you forgetting something entirely. If the emotions you felt at the time were so strong, so overwhelming. Your brain can't remember the events clearly. It's clouded not only because of the intensity of the moment, but also, because you don't feel that way now. There’s no link to the memory in the brain. It's too different or powerful for your everyday cognitive abilities to deal with.

This is why people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will block out certain things, only to have a visual or verbal trigger induce a flashbulb memory. Bringing them right to how they felt at the time. It is also why we've been able to forget some of our worst memories. Our emotions are confusing enough as it is. Anyone who has kept a particularly personal, or traumatic secret will understand the lengths the human brain goes through not just in processing emotion, but reasoning them out and even denying their existence.


Random Memory

Sometimes, "Selective Memory" sounds like far too deliberate a term. I would say Random memory, because most of the time, the decision to forget or recall certain moments is not your conscious decision to make.

Our emotions are too powerful. They override our thoughts, our actions, they make us do things we never would have thought we could do. And then, they manipulate our very memories of those events. This is why therapists exist. This is why we have thousands of experts on human emotion and memory. We need them. Without them, memories can literally ruin your life. For an example, look at Gulf War Syndrome.

Now, psychologists generally consider that Selective Memory is a bad thing. The repression and ignorance of certain moments from our past can have an overwhelming effect on the present if they were to suddenly return to us at the wrong time. BUT, it isn't all bad.


How You Make You

When I said above I was asking you who you are, I meant it. Our selective memories are crucial in forming our opinions of ourselves. Now, this can take positive and negative forms. But you can bet, a highly confident person has a very selective memory when it comes to remembering all the good they've done, or can do. When a shy person's selective memory will only define those moments of failure, those moments where they weren't at their best. Ignoring, or completely forgetting, the moments when they did well. Likewise, if you're in a bad mood, you're more likely to remember things associated with that feeling, ignoring the good memories. And vice versa, with those good memories and a good mood.

Whether we like it or not, we need both of these concepts. How many times have you felt so confident, so full of yourself that you come across as arrogant or unlikeable? Purely because of your mood. And on the opposite side of that; how many times have you felt so crap, so utterly useless that you don't even know why you bother?

This is when the average person must recognise their selective memories in effect. You think you're getting carried away? There's no harm in remembering the time started a fight and lost. Even if it's embarrassing, it might stop you doing something you'll regret later. This kind of mental reasoning is how we learn what can cause us harm when we are children, what we forget is we don't stop learning because we stop growing.

Think of a time you were so down, that you felt like remembering a time you did well is just arrogance, and it couldn't have been as good as you thought. Forget that, acknowledge that it's your current emotion influencing that memory. And maybe, you are just as good as you think you are. There is a major difference between modesty and self-deprecation. And even if someone else may remember things differently, who cares? They are not inside your head, how you remember things, how you perceive events, doesn't have to belong to anyone else. No one else even has to know. This is your personal story, that forms how you see yourself.

Your memory is what makes you who you are. Your self-image comes from these emotions. So, if memory is generally selective, even in the smallest of senses, why hide from this? Use it. Cersei Lannister put it best: “Someday you will sit on the throne, and the truth will be what you make it.” We all are the rulers of our own minds, even if sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Don't fear your selective memory, find your own truth out of it, and accept it. Those are the truths make you who you are.