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Understanding the 'Seven Sins' of Memory

Jameson Rudolph

          Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University, has dedicated decades to studying the intricacies of human memory. His research tackles questions like why our memories are not always accurate, how memory distortions arise, and the role memory plays in imagination. Schacter's extensive study of memory has resulted in the categorization of memory errors into seven distinct types, or "sins". These include transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, mis-attribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.  

Seven Sins

Transience refers to the natural difficulty in accessing memory over time, often leading to the gradual forgetting of older memories. This occurs naturally with age and can be exacerbated by damage to the hippocampus or frontal lobe.

Absent-mindedness involves attention lapses and short-term forgetfulness, like forgetting where you left your keys or wallet. It can occur both during the formation of a memory and when trying to access it.

Blocking represents the temporary inability to retrieve information from memory, such as struggling to recall a word that's on the tip of your tongue.

Misattribution involves attributing memories to incorrect sources or mistakenly believing you've seen or heard something you haven't. This can distort memory, leading to inaccurate recall of people, places, or times.  


Suggestibility refers to the inclusion of false information into memory due to leading questions, deception, and other influences.  

Bias encompasses the retrospective distortion of past memories influenced by current knowledge and beliefs. Your present perceptions can skew your recall of past events. For instance, a current dislike for something can cause you to retrospectively alter your memories related to it.

Persistence is unwanted memories that people can’t forget. One major example is the constant, intrusive memories of post-traumatic stress disorder. If you have memories that you would rather forget but that seem to remain in your head, persistence may be keeping them there.

          These seven "sins" are ubiquitous in daily life. Given the pivotal role memory plays in human functionality, memory errors have wrought countless issues, from minor inconveniences to catastrophic failures. As a result, myriad strategies and techniques have been devised to mitigate these sins and minimize their deleterious effects on memory. Developing methods to avert memory errors could improve our memory usage and forestall the loss or distortion of valuable recollections, underscoring a promising area of research in psychology and neuroscience. This research also intersects with computer science, as computers heavily rely on memory-like structures and could thus benefit from advancements in rectifying memory issues. For instance, neural networks grapple with "catastrophic forgetting", a scenario where they rapidly forget old information, which could be potentially addressed by a solution to transience.

           However, Schacter contends that, despite the issues these sins induce, we shouldn't fundamentally perceive them as flaws in the architecture of memory. He posits that they can be better understood as the costs we incur for the benefits we derive from memory, enabling it to function effectively most of the time. Moreover, many of these sins play crucial roles in memory function and contribute far beyond causing issues. For instance, transience can augment the brain's flexibility by reducing the impact of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making and preventing over fitting on past events.  Consequently, the conversation should perhaps extend beyond just combating these sins, to understanding how to navigate around them. This could enhance our comprehension of both biological and digital memory and inform strategies to improve them.


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