Selective memory: why do we only remember what we care about?
We call cases of selective memory to those situations in which someone seems to show an exceptional ability to remember information that reinforces their point of view but is significantly forgetful about other information related to the first but that they find uncomfortable.
We talk about this selective memory with sarcasm, implying that it is a sign of argumentative weakness or that an illusory view is held on certain topics . As if it were something exceptional, apart from the normative way of thinking.
However, the truth is that selective memory is far from being a simple resource that some people use to cling to beliefs and ideologies that can be endangered with some ease. Human memory, in general, tends to work in the same way in all people, and not only in regard to specific and controversial issues, but also in regard to private beliefs and autobiographical memories.
In short, healthy people with good skills to debate without constantly clinging to dogmas are also subjects who think and remember through the filter of a selective memory.
Selective memory and identity
Memory is the basis of our identity . After all, we are a mixture of our genetics and the experiences we have lived, and these can only leave an imprint on us through memory.
However, this means that our identity is a compressed version of all the events in which we have participated directly or indirectly, as if each and every one of the days we have lived were filed in some part of the human brain in equivalent amounts and well proportioned to each other. To believe this would be to assume that our memory is reproductive, a kind of exact recording of what we have perceived and thought about. And it is not: we only remember what is in some way meaningful to us .
This is the selective memory. In making the content of our own memories is linked to those values, needs and motivations that define our way of perceiving things, making some memories pass the filter to long-term memory and others do not.
Creating meaningful memories
Since the psychologist Gordon Bower's research showed the link between our emotional states and the way we memorize and remember all kinds of information, the idea that our memory works in a biased way even in healthy brains has gained a lot of popularity in the psychology.
Nowadays, in fact, the idea that memory is selective by default starts to be well founded. For example, there are some studies that show that, deliberately, we are able to use strategies to forget memories that do not suit us , while the lines of research that deal with the topic of cognitive dissonance show that we have a certain propensity to memorize basically things that do not question beliefs that are important to us and that, therefore, can be related to a clear meaning.
The process would go like this: we found information that does not fit with our beliefs and that, therefore, produces discomfort because it questions important ideas for us and in the defense of which we have spent time and efforts.
However, the fact that this information has had an impact on us does not have to make it better memorized because it is relevant. In fact, its importance as something that causes us discomfort can be a reason worthy, in itself, to manipulate and distort this memory until it becomes unrecognizable and ends up disappearing as such.
The bias of selective memory
That the normal functioning of the memory is selective is very important, since it is further proof that our nervous system is made more to survive than to know the environment in which we live faithfully and relatively objectively.
In addition, researching selective memory allows us to look for strategies to take advantage of this phenomenon by exploring techniques to make traumatic and unpleasant memories in general not a limiting factor in the quality of life of people.
Be clear that there is no single and correct way to remember your own life path, but rather we have the possibility to choose between equally biased visions about what we are and what we have done , can serve to eliminate prejudices about trauma treatment therapies and encourage us to look for adaptive ways to make our memory a factor that contributes well-being to our way of life, instead of giving us problems.
A more realistic vision
Selective memory is proof that neither our identity nor what we think we know about the world are objective truths to which we have access by the simple fact of having spent a long time existing.In the same way that our attention is focused on some things of the present and leaves out others, with memory something very similar occurs.
As the world is always overflowing with a quantity of information that we can never process in its entirety, we must choose what to attend, and this is something we do consciously or unconsciously. The exception is not what we are not aware of and that we do not know well, but that of which we do have a relatively complete knowledge. By default, we are not aware of what happened, what is happening or what will happen.
This is partly positive and partly negative, as we have already seen. It is positive because it allows us to leave out information that is not relevant, but it is negative because the existence of biases is introduced. Having this clear will allow us not to have unrealistic expectations about our ability to know ourselves and everything that surrounds us.