Carol Forsloff — When we were children most of us played a memory game where we would whisper a phrase into the ear of the person next to us, and the idea was to see how that phrase would be changed, with elements of it forgotten, when it reached the last person. This game, however, in fact does bear some relationship to our memories and how the brain really works, according to recent research.
Northwestern University conducted a study to determine how the memory works and why a story changes with its retelling. It turns out that one’s recall of an event changes with each retelling, as an individual will usually remember incidences recalled during the telling which become changed with the next time a story is told.
University research at Northwestern used a total of 70 people. What they found is that every single person in the study showed the same effect. Donna Bridge, one of the researchers, explains it like this. “Memories aren’t static,” she noted. “If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”
So those people who believe they can recall exactly the sequence of certain events over time are kidding themselves, according to Bridge.
The consequences for this research are extensive. It means that when witnesses in a trial recall an event, they may change elements of their story over time. The person on trial is often accused of changing a story, but this new research reveals that changing a story is something that occurs with ordinary situations and events and the recall of these.
But what about those geniuses who can remember significant events in their lives down to the last detail? It turns out that some people have almost literally photographic memories when it comes to biographical events. Yet when they are studied in a laboratory setting, research shows their memories turn out to be no better for ordinary events than anyone else.
So the next time a spouse maintains he or she can recall what you said on a given occasion, it will depend on whether or not that recall is related to his or her activity at the same time, because if it is an ordinary event, chances are there will be details forgotten or changed in the telling of that item that caused the last quarrel.