The Mysteries and Quirks of Human Memory

There’s a reason we keep forgetting things, Charan Ranganath writes in “Why We Remember,” and we needn’t worry about it.

Erica Goode in Undark: AUTHORS DON’T GET to choose what’s going on in the world when their books are published. More than a few luckless writers ended up with a publication date of Sept. 11, 2001, or perhaps Nov. 8, 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected. But Charan Ranganath, the author of “Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters,”was more fortunate. 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.

The special counsel’s report immediately became a topic of intense discussion — disputed by the White House, seized on by many Republicans, analyzed by media commentators, and satirized by late-night television hosts. But for Ranganath, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, who for decades has been studying the workings of memory, the report’s release was a stroke of luck. His book, which dispels many widespread but wrongheaded assumptions about memory — including some to which that special counsel Robert K. Hur appears to subscribe — could easily have been written as a corrective response.

If Ranganath has a central message, it is that we are far too concerned about forgetting.

Memory does not work like a recording device, preserving everything we have heard, seen, said, and done. Not remembering names or exact dates; having no recollection of the details of a conversation; being unable to recall where you left your glasses or your keys; or watching movies you saw in the past as if you are seeing them for the first time — these are not the symptoms of a failing brain.

They are, on the contrary, signs that your brain is doing just what it was designed to do: prioritize and store important information and let nonessential facts and details slip away, a function that was essential to survival for our evolutionary ancestors. That task has become substantially more difficult with the steady bombardment of email, texts, social media, pop-up ads, and 24-hour news that most people contend with on a daily basis, and as a result, much more extraneous information is forgotten. Even a president might forget a thing or two.

More here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.