Everyone knows that people who develop amnesia after a blow to the head usually forget who they are. At least, that’s what 83% of Americans said in a survey published in the online journal PLoS ONE. But soap opera plotlines to the contrary, that typically isn’t the case. The most common form of amnesia after a brain injury affects the ability to form new long-term memories, not access old ones.
That’s just one of many popular misconceptions about memory. Here are some other enduring myths about the marvelous, mysterious process of remembering.
Reality: In the survey mentioned above, almost two-thirds of a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population agreed that memory works like a videocamera, accurately recording what people see and hear for later review. But when the researchers, headed up by psychologist Daniel J. Simons at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, asked a group of experts about this, all disagreed.
According to the experts, memory is neither that accurate nor that passive. Unlike a video, the way a memory is recorded and replayed can easily be distorted by a person’s expectations, knowledge, and beliefs. That’s why different people can witness the same event, yet have very different recollections of it afterward.
Reality: There's only a weak relationship between how confident people feel about their memories and how likely those memories are to be correct. This has important implications for criminal law, where juries often place great weight on the recollection of one witness. In cases where wrongly convicted defendants were later exonerated, the convictions were often based on confident but erroneous eyewitness testimony.
Reality: Memory isn't just about the past. It may also be crucial for imagining the future. Recent brain scan studies have shown that brain regions associated with memory are similarly activated when people visualize a future event. This may be because people rely on memories to provide vivid details, which can then be recombined to imagine what might happen later.
Reality: A study of people over 70, presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 2012 meeting, found a link between overeating and mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—the stage between normal age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Those in the highest calorie group, who consumed between 2,143 and 6,000 calories daily, were twice as likely to have MCI as those in the lowest calorie group.
According to study author Yonas Geda, a neurology and psychiatry professor at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, the reasons for this finding are still being sorted out. However, in animal studies, cutting back on calories seems to stimulate neuroprotective substances, which increase the resistance of brain cells to dysfunction, disease, and death.
Reality: Minor changes in memory are a common part of aging. As people get older, they might forget where they put their glasses more often or rely on reminder notes more heavily. But in normal age-related memory loss, the problems aren’t bad enough to disrupt daily life. Healthy individuals of any age may not always remember where they left their car keys, but they don’t forget how to drive the car.
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