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  • Writer's pictureArturs Pilkevics

The Truth About Memory

Main takeaways and book summary of the Memory Illusion by Dr Julia Shaw

In her amazing book “The Memory Illusion”, Dr Julia Shaw shows the physiological mechanism of memory formation and retrieval which explains the malleability of our memories - once formed they can never be fully gone, but also never 100% accurate. This has many curious, sad, funny, awkward, and even liberating implications. In this post I will first provide a list of 10 practical takeaways. Then, if you enjoy reading as much as I do, you will find summaries of all chapters, illustrating the ideas using examples from the book and some other sources.


1. Stop guessing or suggesting memories! If you are trying to find out what happened from someone else, ask open ended questions or state the facts. Memories are not as stable as we think they are. Every time we try to remember something, it is like we pull an old book out of a dusty and moldy garage shelf. We blow the dust off, and discover that some words or even sentences are missing, eaten by mold or book worms. We have to be very careful with using our imagination in our effort to fill in any gaps, because our imagination is able to create the filling for those gaps that had never existed in the first place. If that happens, next time we take that memory out of the garage we will not be able to see the difference between the original work and our later additions.

This is extremely important in any job that involves any investigation by means of interviewing people. The interviewer needs to avoid suggesting anything that is not based on verified facts confirmed by means other than just human memory or other witness accounts. This is true when working with adults, but especially important when working with children who are much worse at drawing that line between their memories and imagination. Any effort to help them remember anything by means of suggesting any details increase the likelihood of having a distorted or false account of what really happened.

This is important not only in the field of criminal justice. I can relate to this as a school principal. In my work with children and teenagers I avoid suggestive questioning at all costs when trying to establish the details of a behavior incident, verify a case of academic dishonesty, or suspecting a child safety case. My approach is to either state the facts of what I know is already confirmed as straightforward as possible or ask open ended questions without suggesting anything.

2. Write it down! We are overconfident in our ability to remember, and any memory is subject to decay over time. Therefore, any time the inner voice in your mind tells you “don’t worry, I will remember”, you need to respond - “hold on, let me write this down”. Nowadays, with your mobile phones at hand all the time, just take a picture, use the notes app, etc. In fact, take a picture of any paper print you receive and may need later - not only you may forget the facts and content of that paper, but also where you put it :)

3. Repeat! If you want to learn some facts or new information, plan to do something with this information at short intervals of time after your first encounter. Taking notes is a good idea, but can be limited by the fact that we can only do one thing at time - listen or process. One of the most effective ways to remember the content of a lesson, lecture, book, video is to explain it to someone else shortly after reading or watching it, and adjusting notes as a result of it. Discussing or explaining it will mean placing the memory of the workbench and fine tuning the details based on a fresh recollection. Then is necessary to return to it several times over the next weeks, months, years depending on when this information will be needed again.

4. Use mnemonics! Mnemonics are various kinds of techniques that help remember specific information. They take the forms of rhymes, acronyms, mental imagery to name a few. All memory champions determined by the World memory Sport Council (it exists!) use the technique of mnemonics in their spectacular displays of memory, like memorizing 1000 random digits in an hour, memorize the order ten decks of cards in an hour, or memorize the order of one deck of cards in two minutes (all of these are actual benchmarks!). So, when you need to remember something use mnemonic devices, like:

  • Acronym words - like NEWS for the points of the compass: North, East, West, South, or PEN for the parts of the atom - proton, electron, neutron. Acronym names - like Roy G. Biv, which is a name used to remember the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

  • Phrases - "Does McDonalds Sell Cheeseburgers" as a way of remembering the steps for long division (divide, multiply, subtract, check, bring down).

  • Rhymes - “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” to remember the year of the famous discovery.

  • Story - when many facts or figures need to be remembered, it is suggested to tie all of them into a coherent story where each piece of information plays some part.

  • Mental Imagery - this is the stuff of real champs. Typically the technique involves creating a mental image of a house or a castle, tying the facts or symbols to objects in this house, placing them mentally in certain rooms and places, and instantly creating a story representing an imaginative walk through such a house.

5. Be weird! Our brain is wired to pay more attention to the unexpected and unusual. When trying to remember something or make someone else remember it, experiment with introducing the information in unexpected or novel ways. Great teachers consistently use this technique, when dressing up thematically for a class, using a special background in their online streaming platforms, or opening a lesson with a provocation.

6. Put a calendar reminder when you use a Free Trial! We learned that the reason for companies to use much longer free trial periods nowadays is not their amazing generosity, but a quite opposite drive based on their understanding about our overconfidence in our memory. There used to be week-long free trials, but now they are month-long almost everywhere you look, because the companies know that you are more likely to forget to unsubscribe after a month than after one week.

7. Go out for a fast walk or a jog! This is not in the book, but according to the recent research, aerobic exercise (lifting your heart rate slightly for 30-40 min to break a sweat) is linked to a better memory by means of promoting the formation new neurons especially in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain responsible for making new memories.

8. Get a good night's sleep! Memory consolidation, a process of strengthening our memories, is especially active during sleep. Our brain is far from asleep when we are enjoying our sweet dreams. The brain imagery reveals a show of constant repetition and firing of neurons in the areas that lit up during the day, as if our brain is reliving our recent experiences countless times in order to make those connections better. In fact, the very sweet dreams may be caused by this process of memory consolidation. I will never forget my mom’s advice to place the book that I was reading in preparation for my next class under my pillow to remember the information better. I now know that there was no magic involved in this trick. First, before placing it under my pillow I surely looked at it already triggering my brain to fire some previously made connections. Then, and very often, I spent 15-20 minutes going over the chapter which set in motion an intense consolidation of this most recent experience after I hit the pillow myself. So, if you want good lasting memories, get enough sleep regularly.

9. Be understanding! We need to be more understanding, more forgiving, and patient with each other, not automatically jumping to conclusions about someone being a liar or losing our trust forever due to one or another false account of the past. It may well be that we are the ones having a corrupted memory, no matter how sure we are about it.

10. Live now! Our memories are fragile, our past is a fiction to a great extent, so we have all reasons not to get stuck in it, to treat each new day as a new page. I want to conclude in unison with Shaw: “The best time of our lives, and of our memory, is right now.”


The Truth About Childhood Memories

Shaw sets the scene with a great myth buster. Some people claim to be able to remember their early childhood memories, others even go so far to claim they remember their very birth. Sounds fantastic, and rightfully so, it is indeed… a fantasy. Shaw explains the reason we are not able to remember our earliest memories - our brains simply seem not to be mature enough to form such memories until the age of approximately three. On the other hand, she also gives a reason why we should not call such people liars. They may truly believe that they remember their early childhood or birth, since their brains have visualized these memories at some point, and thus stored these visualizations just as if they would store memories of real events. You see, our brain retrieves a memory of a real event in the same way it retrieves a memory of an event we once imagined. People who are convinced of remembering their early childhood memories or their birth, have probably been told the stories about these early events by their family members or relatives, maybe even several times, and most probably when they were still children. After some time, they have forgotten who and when told them these stories, but events produced by their imagination stuck with them as real memories.

One very famous account of such a false memory formation comes from another book by no other than the Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. He provides an example of what is called a reconstructed memory based on a postevent suggestion. Here is how Piaget described his memory from when he was two years old:

"I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches and I can still vaguely see those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station. [Piaget (1951) Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, p. 188]"

Doesn`t this account feel and sound very real and true? You may say the proof of its reality lies in the fact it is told in such great detail and with such confidence. Well, Paiget himself realized that this story is actually a false memory when he was about fifteen. His old nanny admitted that she had fabricated this story of kidnapping in pursuit of a reward from Piaget`s family. She indeed received a very expensive watch as a thank you gift for her heroic act. In the fifteen years until the discovery of this heroic fabrication, the story has been told in family gatherings many times which explains the vividness of it to Piaget - he has reproduced the events and the details so many times in his imagination that these events became a real memory to him.

False Memories in Adults

Well, does the same false memory formation happen in adulthood? Yes. Later in her book, in Chapter 7, Dr Shaw describes another famous and scandalous example from the life of one of the most watched television news anchors in the US, Brian Williams. Williams was suspended from his job at the NBC nightly news after he shared an account of his memory from the Iraq war in an interview with David Letterman in 2005. WIlliams was describing events that had occurred 2 years before the interview when he was reporting from the front lines in Iraq. He described an event when the helicopter platoon consisting of four helicopters came under fire and his helicopter was hit. All four helicopters landed and the US troops spotted and saved them amidst the danger of the enemy territory. Williams told this story on many different occasions, but after the interview with Letterman, it has caught so much attention that his fellow survivors from the platoon started posting on Facebook that his account is inaccurate - namely, he could not have been in the helicopter that has been hit, he was in fact in the helicopter that was behind. You may imagine the public humiliation that Williams had to suffer, being labeled as a “show off” and liar. However, Shaw goes on to defend him, explaining that formation of such false memories in adulthood is nothing extraordinary, especially when memories come from very emotionally laden and dangerous situations. Seeing the scene unfold in front of him, made him feel present in the scene, and later visualize the events so vividly, impressing a print on his brain so deep that it felt like his own memory.

Perception Illusions and Reminiscence Bump

Chapter two talks about perception. Shaw explains how our view of reality is actually our perception. Our experience is a product of processing done by our brain. All of this means our view of reality is also never 100% accurate as it is perceived from our point of view, hence our perception. This is another reason our memories are never 100% accurate as they are formed by our sensory input which is always subjective.

On another note, there is a fascinating fact described in the same Chapter, and that is that we do not remember all ages in our lives equally. This phenomenon is called a reminiscence bump which may explain why adults often use say among themselves `remember the good old days` or to their kids `when I was your age`. Yes, you are guessing it right - we remember our teen and young adult years the most. We have almost no memories up until the age of five, the number of memories increasing between five and ten, peaking in the teens and early twenties, and then stabilizes for the remainder of our lives. This phenomenon is cross cultural, but not all cultures remember the same events. For example, Chinese participants of the study remember more communal events, like a childbirth in the family, interacting with other people, family gatherings, while US participants remember more self-centered events, like individual success, fear, frustration, or nightmares. So the reminiscence bump is the same around the world but the content of our memories may differ from culture to culture.

Chapter three describes where these limitations of our memory and perception may come from by explaining physiological processes involved in processing of information.

Islands of Memory Genius and the Blessing of Forgetting

Ok, if what has been described so far leads you to a conclusion that none of us are actually really good at correctly remembering anything, you got to be wondering about all the stories of memory geniuses - whether the memory contest champions on TV shows or Raymond Babitt from Rain Man. In Chapter 4, Dr Shaw explains that indeed there are individuals with extraordinary memories among us, but questions the whole notion of these being some superpowers, showing that the ability to forget may be as important as the ability to remember.

First,she talks about hyperthymesia. No, it is not a very large animal or monster, it is a term coming from the Greek hyper which means more than normal, and thymesis which means to remember. This term was coined by scientists from the University of California when in 2006 they discovered the first and then later other individuals who suffer from a condition of remembering every day of their lives and what happened on every one of them since their early childhood. They could tell you where they were, who they met and what they saw on the news each day. Such individuals are called HSAMs - highly superior autobiographical memory individuals and there are around fifty of them confirmed by now.

You may have asked yourself why I used the term suffer from when talking about such a gift. You would think that such an amazing memory is a superpower that guarantees success at school and at work. Well, it doesn’t! As scientists discovered, HSAMs have their superpower limited only to autobiographical memories, with semantic memory, like remembering numbers and facts, being at or below average. So, no matter how incredible it seems to us, simple mortals, to be able to name any event that happened on any day of our lives to entertain our party guests, people who actually have this gift, report it being more of a burden. For example, AJ, the very first confirmed HSAM, in her letter to the researchers concluded: “Most have called it a gift, but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!” No wonder AJ actually struggled at school and went through periods of unemployment.

Dr Shaw goes on to describe one of the best explanations scientists nowadays have for HSAMs. It has to do with another theory of how our memory works, called the spreading activation. It basically means all our memories are linked like a web in our brain and when we are trying to remember something, we are sending a search signal through this web until it finds the necessary information or at least the information most related to what we are trying to remember. For example, if I want to remember some particular basketball game from my teen years, I would first remember my gym, my coach, players from my team, maybe players from the opposing team, and so on, looking for more details from there. The things that are most closely related to the concept of that particular game, will be the closest on such web and the related details somewhere further. Well, the theory tells us that in HSAMs brains such activation happens automatically rather than intentionally and they are not able to control it. These constant searches for biographical information make these memories very permanent and explain the phenomenon of not-forgetting, but driving them crazy at the same time.

Another particular group of people some of whom possess the superpowers of memory genius are individuals with autism. Approximately one in ten of autistic individuals have exceptional memory and such people are called savants. They are well represented in movies like Rain Man or Accountant, but it also reminds of one particular case that is worth its own movie - Solomon Shereshevsky. Born in 1866, journalist by profession, Shereshevsky was studied for 30 years by psychologist Alexander Luria as he was able to perform truly unbelievable feats of memorization. He seemed to remember a wide range of information instantly and keep it forever. He could recite whole pages of text word by word, remember a string of 70 random letters after looking at it for 3-4 seconds, and even precisely name a complicated formula of 30 symbols after it had been kept in a safe for 15 years since he first saw it. However, in comparison to HSAMs, savants have an exceptional semantic memory, recall for numbers and figures, and below average or sometimes very weak recall of auto-biographical memories. We now know that individuals with autism typically have damage in the limbic prefrontal system, the part of the brain most often associated with episodic remembering of personal events. This may explain their mindblindness, a term describing their particular inability to understand the mental states of others and to appreciate that others may have different emotions and desires from their own. So it seems that the memory gift of savants is a reverse of HSAMs. Superpowers seems to always come at a cost!

I also want to note here, that I was a bit surprised that Shaw sticks to savants and HSAMs, and not saying much about the actual memorists in this chapter. Memorists are folks who participate in the memory championships and are able to perform incredible display of memory that is a result of training.The are sporadically mentioned on several occasions, but to my mind, are worth a couple of pages in such a book.

Shaw closes the chapter by showing one more example of how remembering can be a burden - in cases of post traumatic stress-disorder. Later in the book she also shows how a classical approach of treating PTSD - forming focus groups and sharing the experiences with others, actually can do more harm than good.

In general we perceive forgetting as something negative and remembering as something positive, right? Shaw has shown us that we may reconsider this perception of ours. Now we know that forgetting is actually as important as remembering. Our brain is incredible at forming memories because it is incredible at prioritizing what is important, focusing its energy on strengthening the important memories , and saving its energy on the things we do not need to remember or are not using. So Shaw concludes Chapter 4: “Memories are built to forget. Forgetting is a beautiful mechanism that trims down our neural connections to make our brains more efficient at storing only the information most important to us. When we realize the beauty of forgetting, we also see that perhaps the ability to remember everything would be a super-burden rather than a superpower (p.105)

So, if our mechanism of perception is flawed and limited due to the limited way we can pay attention to things, what if we could hack that mechanism, bypass our flawed consciousness, and plant memories directly into our subconsciousness? Several famous programs have been sold to people under this premise. Have you ever been offered records or tapes that promise teaching you a new language or mounding you into a more motivated or wise person if you listened to the records during sleep? That's the type of stuff Shaw does not have any regard for, as she explains in chapter five that learning requires attention. Building on this, she then proceeds to demonstrate that accessing hidden memories by means of hypnosis is also a myth.

Chapter six returns to our biases and talks about our own overconfidence in our abilities, including our memory. Just as the vast majority of people would say that they are an above average driver, which is mathematically impossible, in the same way, most of us would estimate ourselves to have a better than average recall. This is another factor contributing to our reported memories not being as reliable as we ourselves think or claim them to be.

Memory Hacking

Chapter seven challenges another prevalent view that some flashbulb events are imprinted into our memory with a particular accuracy due to the impact that these events had. For example, the day of 9/11 that shook the world so profoundly that an average individual, especially in the United States, would have to remember that day in particular detail. Shaw demonstrates that we do seem to be able to remember our emotions very vividly on such days, but when it comes to details, we are as inaccurate as on any other day or with any other memory. Then it gets very exciting as Shaw explains how, based on all this knowledge about memory, she is experimenting with memory hacking - planting false memories. If you are willing to plant some false memories, follow these eight steps:

  1. Get the informants who know the participants of your experiment in their teens, like parents, siblings, close friends, etc. who could tell you about emotional events in the life of the participants.

  2. Ask the informants to describe some true emotional events from participants lives in their teens

  3. Filter the participants to choose only those who have not experienced any of the events she is trying to implant.

  4. Interview the participant, first telling them about a true event provided by the informant to get the credibility about your knowledge of their past

  5. Then, introduce a false event, something that participants did not actually do but which sounds possible, e.g. an animal attack, bodily injury,losing a large sum of money and getting in trouble with their parents.

  6. At first, participants typically and obviously have a hard time remembering the false event. Offer them “help” in the form of a visualization exercise by asking them to imagine what the event could have looked like. Participants try to remember, are asked not to talk to anyone about this newly remembered event, are sent home, and invited for another interview a week later.

  7. The participant is asked to recall both the details of a true and false implanted memory, are sent home with instructions to remember more details, and invited for the last round of interviews a week later.

  8. The participant is asked to describe the false memory in more detail at the last interview.

Ok…. So, does it work? Well, the data from Shaw’s experiments show that around 70% of us, simple mortals, are caught in this trick and describe the false memory in much detail during the last interview. The memory hacking works! All of this has to do with the first central theme we started off with in this blog post - malleability of our memories and inability of our brain to discern a real memory from a product of imagination after several recalls. Thus, an offer to help a participant by encouraging imagination of how the event could look like, produces a memory that is a product of imagination rather than real events… a false, self-created visualization of non-existent events.

Shaw goes on to describe some very serious consequences of such a phenomenon in criminal justice. As we know much of the evidence in criminal justice comes from the testimonies of eyewitnesses. While reading this, you may by now realize how important are the type of questions that are asked during interrogations. Any suggestive questioning, any effort to provide help by suggesting to imagine the crime scene may lead to memory hacking and plant false memories which in turn may result in a false conviction of an innocent person. And it appears to be not just a hypothesis. Shaw mentions a study about a large number of long term convicts being released from prisons in the US right after the invention of DNA identification method which proved that so many sentences based on eyewitness accounts were not accurate..

Social Media, Group Memory, and Self-Image

In Chapter 8, Shaw talks about the effect that our recent obsession with social media has on our perception of self and our memory. She first explains that we can not multitask - it is not possible due to the way our neurons are operating when we are performing similar tasks, basically being able to pay attention to one task at hand when it requires conscious processing. She also talks about the stream of social consciousness that provides us with a feeling of connectedness and at the same time dilutes our own memories, our own perception with that of others. Related to this phenomenon is our conformity to information when it is provided by others. Shaw calls it groupiness - our judgements and also our memories are influenced by the constant stream of opinions we get exposed to in the media. Then Shaw talks about digital amnesia - basically technology and internet replacing and thus weakening our ability to remember factual information.

Finally, and to me, most interestingly, Shaw talks about our self-image, quite literally. She explains that our perception of ourselves and how we look is not just the last image we have seen in our mirror, but a collection of all images we have seen of ourselves over the years, making it a complex combination that is never very accurate. We are actually not very accurate at finding a true image of ourselves and our closest friends among fabrications. In fact, a stranger would be able to recognize the image of ourselves more realistically than ourselves, after seeing our picture only a couple of times.This has been concluded in a clever study which involved modifying the real images to look better or worse using digital editing, and then asking the participants to find the true version of themselves or others in the pictures, to see if and how close would the choice be to the real original. It also revealed an intriguing phenomenon - the closer we are to the person the more positive and good looking our memory of that person is.

In Chapter nine, Shaw gives some other examples of how the lack of knowledge about our memory mechanisms can lead to very serious consequences in real life. She talks about a case of panic over accusations in cases of child abuse which was based on highly suggestive qurstioning of children. Then, we have a critical view of Sigmund Freud’s famous theory of self and human sexuality which in fact is based on practices that are basically identical to memory hacking rather than any scientific fact based methodology.

In Chapter ten we read about some tips of using this new knowledge about the workings of our memory to avoid being manipulated in various situations. I will go over those in my list of takeaways and practical implications, but first I would like to offer my impressions and review of the book. Overall I found it entertaining, informative, and insightful. I have read several works that had chapters or sections on memory, but Dr Shaw’s work definitely provided an in-depth look and the most updated perspective on this topic, especially on the aspect of malleability of memories and its implications.

Well, these are all my most vivid memories from this exciting book. Are they accurate :)? Read the book and find out!

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