The Perversity of Memory

Memory fades with time.  Right?  It makes sense.  There are lots of memories that were crystal clear immediately after they happened, but are now foggy.  You’ve probably studied immediately before a test and done well only to find weeks or months later that you can’t recall the information that you had previously known so well.

In the American Psychologist, Mathew Hugh Erdelyi describes a contradictory phenomena with memory.  Memory, it seems, also improves with time.  According to Erdelyi as time passes it becomes both worse and better.

It seems that some memories recalled immediately are later forgotten.  And some memories that are forgotten immediately are later recalled.  So how does this happen.  Improvement is only sometimes found, largely dependent the content of the memory.  Random and nonsense memories generally fade with time.  Meaningful and emotionally laden memories can improve with time.

So can you trust your memory of an argument with your mother or the recollection that your brother stole your Christmas presents when you were 10?  Does that mean that repressed memories are accurate or that witnesses can actually add to information about a case long after the original crime?  According to Erdelyi, not all memories are to be trusted.  Recall over time is “noisy.”  We have both “true” memories and “false” alarms.  If there is no way to check the facts, it’s impossible to determine whether memory is true or false.

The perversity of human memory is that over time memory both improves and declines.  And over time memory is both accurate and distorted.

4 Replies to “The Perversity of Memory”

  1. With help of a neuroscience, and growing evidence among Alzheimer’s early stage patients, we are beginning to understand how memory changes as we age — but in perverse ways. Writer Richard Taylor, an early onset Alzheimer’s patient, explains that he’s forgotten essential things needed to function daily, but what he does remember makes him feel worse! The kind of memories my wife (diagnosed with early stage cognitive/memory impairment) suffers from now follow a predictable pattern. Left and right brain hemisphere memory changes as we age.

    Left brain “explicit memory” is dominant in early life as it focuses on facts, names, places, time and location — essential for navigating in daily life — being cognizant of who, what, when and where. However, this type of memory is subject to fading in later life. It is further compromised by a stress hormone Cortisol that compromises hippocampus explicit memory acquisition and recall.

    Right brain “implicit memory” is based on significant life experiences — both good and traumatic events. There is interplay between explicit and implicit memory. However, as our brain ages, explicit factual information often becomes muddled. However, implicit memory appears to compensate for this loss of accuracy. While factual memory can be subject to loss through aging and disease, implicit experiential memory (often subconscious) sharpens recall of early life trauma.

    Indeed, memory in later life is particularly perverse. What we “need to know” to function as we once did often slips away. Moreover our dreams remind us of early age fears that unfortunately arise fresh in our minds. The resulting fear and anxiety we experienced in early life unexpectedly intrudes upon emotional health and exacerbates factual memory loss in our senior life.

    To help seniors prepare for this aging brain process, we have begun a program in our community (“Senior Brain Club”)to educate retirees about these and other brain function changes that affect quality of later life. Understanding these issues is not just academic information. It may be a missing element in maintaining emotional and neurological health in later life. We’re open to sharing our findings, reported in “Senior Brain News” with others interested in this kind of educational program. Unfortunately we have no funds to create an online presence. However, we will share issues of our newsletter on a case by case basis by email request to

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