It isn’t only computers that have memory problems. Just ask anyone over a certain age—or take a look at this entertaining new book.
As the title indicates, Schachter (Psychology/Harvard Univ.) describes seven generic failings to which everyone’s memory is prone. Transience is the loss of details over time; everyone remembers last night’s dinner better than that of a week ago, and that of a year ago is often entirely forgotten. Absentmindedness is the familiar inability to remember where you left your car keys or whether you took your medicine. One of the most frustrating is blocking (the “it’s right on the tip of my tongue”) phenomenon, in which a familiar word or name refuses to emerge from memory (often coming back in the middle of the night). Also common is misattribution, for example crediting Sean Connery for a role played by some other actor. Suggestibility is the tendency to adopt and hold onto false memories suggested by some other outside influence (such as a leading question) or to recall feeling at the time of a past event an emotion only experienced much later. A variety of biases lead us to reconstruct the past to match current beliefs, or to place ourselves at the center of events in which we were minor participants. Finally, there is persistence, the inability to forget even years later some traumatic event such as a rejection or a faux pas. For each of these traits, the author suggests causes as well as potential remedies: gingko biloba for transience, for example. In a summary chapter, Schacter argues that each of these failures is in fact an aspect of some positive trait without which memory would be far less valuable.
A lively and well-written survey, spiced up with incidents from recent headlines.