Does Human Memory Work Like a Tape Recorder

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We make memories every day, some are carried with us for much longer than others. For example: losing your first tooth, listening to your favorite band for the first time, your first concert, your first break-up, your first kiss - you get the idea. But how reliable are our memories? Does Human Memory work like a tape recorder or video camera, are they accurate replays of moments in our minds? 

This is one of the psychological myths I will be addressing throughout this paper. I have chosen this specific topic because I have recently had an encounter with an incorrect remembrance of a memory. For 19 years of my life, I had truly believed my father taught me how to ride a bike. Even though I could swear I remember this moment exactly as it occurred, my mother and even father have confirmed that this memory is untrue. I made up a memory without even knowing it. How did I add in a false detail to one of my most cherished memories of my father and I?

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In the first article, '24 Hours After learning Something, We Forget Two-Thirds of it', we discuss an experiment done in the late 1800's by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who performed an experiment which would later be referred to as the 'Forgetting Curve'. He began by attempting to memorize and recite lists of words, testing his remembrance through repetition (Kindersley). In his experiment he found that he better retained the information he spent more time memorizing. 

Ebbinghaus also found a correlation between retained information and time after learning or memorizing the content. There seemed to be a loss of information after the first hour, about sixty percent of the material is lost after nine hours, and sixty-six percent of the material is lost after twenty-four hours (Kindersley). This means that after attempting to encode information or moments - only about 40% is retained. This leaves much room for memory distortions as we attempt to fill in the gap of the information that was lost over time.

Because of Ebbinghaus' experiment, we learn that most of what we learn is forgotten right after it is learned. But why do we forget? What causes this? How we process information plays a huge roll. In 'Presenting Psychology: Second Edition' we learn that memory is defined as 'the brain processes involved in encoding (collection), storage, and retrieval of information' (Licht et al.). Encoding is how we process information and whether it is retained or lost, storage is a preservation of information for future recollection, and finally retrieval is pulling up information that was previously stored for recollection - although it cannot always be retrieved. Although we can store large amounts of information/memories, memories can fade over time. This makes memories mailable, vulnerable to revisions based on new knowledge, opinion, emotions or information (Licht et al.).

In the Journal, 'Understanding Low Reliability of Memories for Neutral Information Encoded under Stress' we are introduced to an experiment whose purpose is to explain if stressors at the time of encoding memories an effect on the reliability have of said memories and brain function. The experiment consists of forty-four male individuals who were exposed to movie scenes showing emotionally neural occurrences. Short-term stressors were introduced in half of the participants by showing, along with the neutral clips, aversive content and the threat of electrical shock throughout the viewing. 

A surprise memory quiz about the previously watched content was introduced 24-hours later; the results showed that acute stressors at the time of encoding these scenes showed a loss of accuracy when answering questions. The researchers find that there does seem to be some effect, to an extent, in the participants that are under acute stressors vs the control group. Do stressors have an impact during encoding of neutral information? Yes, the way we process memories or encoding while under stressors does have an effect on information later remembered.

Based on the research above, we find that memory is not like a tape recorder or video camera. As time goes by fragments can be inserted or deleted from our memories, without our knowledge, to form revised versions. This is due to how we have processed and stored our memories, new information gained over time, stressors or emotions experienced, as well as the decay of said memories over years (Licht et al.). Ebbinghaus' Curve of Forgetting shows that immediately after learning, memories and information are lost at a rapid rate causing incomplete memories.

Until recently, I was unaware that memories were this malleable. I didn't believe memories were like a recording - in that small details could be altered (color of clothing, time of day, etc.) - but I also wasn't aware that there were such large details that could be changed and later whole-heartedly believed to be true. I don't believe there is validity to the myth that memory is like a tape recorder or video camera - over time we will revise these moments and small details will continue to change. 

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