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The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

"Schacter . . . proves himself our most commanding and accessible writer about this fascinating subject . . . Compelling in its science and its probing examination of everyday life, The Seven Sins of Memory is also a delightful book, lively and clear . . . a superb example of contemporary science writing for a popular audience." — Floyd Skloot, Chicago Tribune

"Clear, entertaining, and provocative . . . This book encourages a new appreciation of the complexity and fragility of memory and how it affects our daily lives." — David Williams, Seattle Times

"To lose memory is to lose our sense of self." — Stephen S. Hall, New York Times Book Review


Forgive my memory, for it has sinned. And continues to sin. And when I've forgotten I've sinned, well, that's a sin, too.

Are we never to escape the sins of our memories? It seems we all — from stressed-out twenty-somethings to aging baby boomers to senior citizens — suffer memory problems:
• WHERE did I put the keys?
• I've known her for fifteen years, yet WHAT is her name?
• I'm sure I learned the Pythagorean theorem in high school, so WHY can't I remember it?

The first step to overcoming our memory problems is to understand what sins our mind commits. In The Seven Sins of Memory, Daniel L. Schacter compares the seven ancient deadly sins to the seven "transgressions" of memory. He realizes, however, that we as sinners need to understand not only what the sins are, but why we commit these sins and how we can overcome them.

He divides the sins into two categories — the sins of omission and the sins of commission. The sins of omission include transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking. The sins of commission are misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. Schacter illustrates these concepts with vivid examples — case studies, literary excerpts, experimental evidence, and accounts of highly visible news events. He also highlights ways in which we can improve our memories and change the patterns that lead to these memory problems.

Despite the frustrations caused by these lapses, Schacter reminds us that they are not without purpose. As Schacter explains, "Each of the deadly sins can be seen as exaggerations of traits that are useful and sometimes necessary for survival." Rather than portraying them as flaws in the design of our brain or inherent weaknesses, he argues that they "provide a window on the adaptive strengths of memory." For example, although it is exasperating to hunt for your keys, your memory filters unneeded or often-repeated information, such as where you put the keys, in order to help you perform routine tasks efficiently.

The Seven Sins of Memory was a New York Times Notable Book, as was Daniel Schacter's previous book, Searching for Memory. As one of the country's leading memory experts, Schacter has appeared on Today, The Early Show, Charlie Rose, and Science Daily. He has also discussed memory on NPR's Fresh Air, Weekend All Things Considered, To the Best of Our Knowledge, and The Connection.

About the Author

Daniel L. Schacter is the chairman at Harvard University's Department of Psychology, where he researches cognitive and neuropsychological aspects of memory and amnesia. He is the author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, which received a New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award, and Searching for Memory, which was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It was named one of Library Journal's Best Science and Technology Books of the Year and won the American Psychological Association's William James Book Award.

Schacter has published articles on his research in a variety of scholarly journals, including the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychological Science, Journal of Memory and Language, and American Psychologist.

Considered an expert in memory research, Schacter has made many appearances in the scientific community and in the media. He was the keynote speaker at the American Psychological Association's 2000 conference, and has appeared on the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, 20/20, NBC's Today and Sunday Today, CBS's Early Show, and PBS's Scientific American Frontiers, with Alan Alda.

Daniel Schacter's Tips for Reducing the Impact of Memory Sins

TRANSIENCE: weakening of memory over time
Transience is a basic feature of memory — as hours, weeks, and years pass, memories fade or become distorted. In order to overcome this sin, Schacter suggests the following methods:
• Visual imagery mnemonics: Elaborate on information you wish to remember by converting it into vivid and even bizarre visual imagery. For example, to remember the author's name, Daniel Schacter, one might think of him surrounded by a group of lions (Daniel in the lion's den), eyeing a shack into which he hopes to flee for protection.
• Generating elaboration: Ask questions about what you wish to remember, which force you to elaborate. What are the distinctive facial features of the woman I just meet? What acquaintance does she remind me of, and what are the similarities and differences?
• Herbs, hormones, and genes: Quite a bit of media attention is given to memory drugs such as ginkgo. However, Schacter says, "Given a choice between taking gingko or investing some time and effort into developing elaborate encoding strategies, healthy people would be well advised to focus on the latter approach."

ABSENT-MINDEDNESS: breakdown between attention and memory
Absent-mindedness is perhaps the most irritating of the seven memory sins. Schacter says, "Absent-minded errors of prospective memory (remembering to do things in the future) are annoying not only because of their pragmatic consequences, but also because others tend to see them as reflecting on credibility and even character in a way that poor retrospective memory does not." The solution?
• Use event-based cues ("Take your medication after brushing your teeth") rather than time-based cues ("Take your medication at 11:00 p.m.").
• Give yourself highly distinctive cues that have few other associations in long-term memory and are unlikely to remind you of irrelevant information.
• Provide yourself with sufficient information. Write down not only the phone number you wish to remember, but whom it belongs to and how you know that person.

BLOCKING: thwarted search for desired information
Most of us have had the feeling that the word or name we are searching for is on the tip of our tongue. Blocking occurs most frequently with people's names, though it often occurs with other proper nouns, including places, titles of books and movies, and names of popular tunes, as well as common words. Unlike absent-minded memory failures, this information has been encoded and stored, as is evident when one remembers it with embarrassment hours later.
• If you are able to remember some letters of the word, use them as a starting point.
• Try to recall similar situations in which you saw the person or used the word to help trigger memory.
• Avoid repeating words that sound similar; it will only prolong your search.
• Be proactive and link images to the word or name before you are likely to need it.

MISATTRIBUTION: incorrect memory assignment
Misattribution occurs when we remember doing things we only imagined, or recall seeing a friend at a time or place other than when or where we actually encountered him — we remember aspects of the incident correctly but attribute them to the wrong source.
• Do not rely on general recollections; rather, focus on specific aspects of the incident.
• Create conditions that induce you to rely on accurate recollections of what really happened rather than being misled into errors based on general resemblances.
• Base your memory decisions on specific recollections, rather than relying on an overall familiarity.
• Pay close attention to the source of your ideas rather than relying on a general recollection.

SUGGESTIBILITY: implantation of wrong memories
Suggestibility refers to an individual's tendency to incorporate misleading information from external sources into personal recollections. Schacter says this sin is the most dangerous of the seven because "leading questions can contribute to eyewitness misidentification; suggestive psychotherapy procedures may foster the creation of false memories; and aggressive interviewing of preschool children can result in distorted memories of alleged abuse . . . The stakes are high in these cases for affected individuals." To combat suggestibility, Schacter suggests the following:
• Report everything about the relevant incident ("What color was his shirt?" rather than focusing on general concepts: "Describe your attacker").
• Reinstate mentally the setting in which the incident occurred.
• Try to recall events in different temporal orders: start at the beginning and proceed to the end, and vice versa.
• Try to take a different perspective on an event.

BIAS: editing the past based on current experiences
Seeing yourself in a positive light and another person negatively is a common bias. Another example is the habit of altering your recollection of the past to fit the present. Schacter says these biases are worrisome because "they can reduce or even prevent learning from experience: if we feel we knew all along what would happen, then we may be less inclined to profit from the lesson a particular event or incident can teach us." An especially pernicious bias is stereotyping: expecting someone to act or behave a certain way because of his age or race.
• While there are no shortcuts, bias can be limited through self-examination.

PERSISTENCE: repeated recall of disturbing memories
Perhaps the most debilitating sin, persistence involves remembering those things you wish you could forget — the song stuck in your head, an unpleasant or difficult experience, the death of a loved one, failure at work, or the rejection of a lover. Persistent memories are a major consequence of any type of traumatic experience: war, violent assaults or rapes, sexual abuse, earthquakes and other natural disasters, torture and brutal imprisonment, motor vehicle accidents. "Though such events may seem like relatively rare occurrences," says Schacter, "epidemiological studies suggest that just over half of women and 60 percent of men will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives." How does one deal with these persistent memories?
• Write down your memory. This tip is particularly effective with minor persistent memories, such as the tune running through your head.
• Engage in distracting activities that draw your attention away from continued ruminations on an unpleasant experience.
• Acknowledge, confront, and work through your intrusive memories.
• Disclose difficult experiences to others.

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