Why are some details in our memory erased while others remain?

Why are some details in our memory erased while others remain?

You’ve probably noticed that you remember well what happened a long time ago, you remember the essence of what happened, but you can’t remember the details of the event.

Why do various elements get erased, but the main thing remains? Let’s find out.

Semanticisation of memory

Experts agree that as memories are stored in our memories they undergo a kind of transformation called “semantization”.

This is a phenomenon in which different memories are given meaning or significance. A recent study of the semantization of memories has confirmed that the essence of what is stored in our memories remains in focus, but that the fine details become increasingly blurred over time.

In a sense, this process can be compared to the way the quality of photographs taken 30-40 years ago changes. The photos become blurry, the clarity of the picture decreases, and the details of perception deteriorate: in fact, memories of the past become less vivid. It is the same with what we remember: our internal memoirs lose their particular clarity, resulting in remembering only the basic elements. Moreover, the essence of memories can change every time a person scrolls over and over in his memory certain events.

Research published in the journal Nature Communications confirms that the semantization of memories retains the main essence of what happened, but not the details themselves. Specialist Yulia Lifanova, who works at a university in Birmingham, England, says:

“Over time, when people retell their stories, they tend to forget the superficial details. Over time, when people tell their stories, they tend to forget the superficial details, but the meaningful content of the event, the things that are meaningful or valuable to them, remain etched in their memories. It is a kind of “vivification” of memory”.

Imagine that you are remembering last night’s dinner with your spouse at a restaurant. You know exactly what you ordered, but you can’t remember the decor of the table at which you were seated. Moreover, you remember talking to the bartender, but you do not remember the color of his shirt.

This phenomenon is called semantization, and in order to analyze different aspects of memories, Lifanova and her British colleagues conducted a series of several studies. For such studies, the experts used a computerized task that measured how quickly a person was able to recover certain characteristics of visual memories. Respondents followed the principle “word – image”: a little later, after hearing a word, their task was to remember the different elements shown in the image. For example, participants in the study had to indicate whether the image was color or black and white (perceptual details), as well as whether there was an animate or inanimate object on it (semantic element).

Similar tests analyzing visual recall abilities were conducted in two stages: immediately after training and two days later. Reaction time models showed that participants remembered meaningful semantic elements faster than superficial, perceptual ones.

What does it mean?

When an event is recalled frequently, it contributes to what researchers call the semantization of memories. The ability to remember the essence of what happened is possible due to specific features of memory, while the details of the event recede into the background, as if becoming increasingly blurred.

We can conclude that memories primarily focus on the meaningful content or the very goal of what happened. This is clearly reflected in our brain signals. Our memories change slightly over time: we want them to retain the information we need, so we sometimes adapt them to the modern view.

Our autobiographical memories change over time, which is not the case with the details of perception. They fade like sun-bleached photographs, but the essence of the semantic information is perfectly preserved in the mind and memory.

These studies are of great benefit for the analysis of memories in the context of post-traumatic disorders. It has been revealed that in such situations patients often suffer from intrusive traumatic memories. Moreover, such people tend to perceive everything close to their hearts – it is as if they “shift” memories onto real life.

The findings are also very important for understanding how the memories of eyewitnesses to a particular tragedy can be distorted by repetition due to frequent comments and interviews: the essence is remembered, but the fine details (which can play a huge role) are erased.

So, despite the fact that memories cannot be called an “exact copy of what happened” (it is a kind of reconstructive process), according to experts, the content of memories can change every time we scroll through the event over and over in our minds.


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