The Mysteries and Quirks of Human Memory

There’s a reason we keep forgetting things, Charan Ranganath -a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, writes in “Why We Remember,” and we needn’t worry about it.

Erica Goode in Undark: His book went on sale last month, not long after the Department of Justice released a report describing President Joe Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory” who, in interviews, was “struggling to remember events,” including the year that his son Beau died.

Excerpt from the book review:
“The problem isn’t your memory, it’s that we have the wrong expectations for what memory is for in the first place,” Ranganath writes in his introduction, a theme that he returns to throughout the book. “Severe memory loss is undoubtedly debilitating, but our most typical complaints and worries around everyday forgetting are largely driven by deeply rooted misconceptions.”

Those misguided notions include the idea that memory is an archival repository of our life stories; that memories are fixed and unchangeable, and perhaps most of all, that our memories can always be trusted, when in fact they are eminently corruptible.

What scientists know about how memory works has increased significantly over the last decades. Ranganath early on introduces readers to a basic distinction between episodic memory, the ability to recall life events and experiences — where you were going and what you were feeling the day you left your wallet sitting on a bench in Central Park, for example — and semantic memory, the ability to recall factual information, like how many justices sit on the Supreme Court. More here.