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Your memory is like a game of telephone
September 20th, 2012
05:01 PM ET

Your memory is like a game of telephone

Remember the game "telephone"? Someone starts by saying a sentence to the person next to them. That person then turns to someone else and repeats what they heard. Somehow, by the time the sentence gets to the last person in line, it's all mixed up and barely resembles the original.

Apparently our memories operate in the same way.

A study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience looks at how we retrieve memories. It's a well-known phenomenon that retrieval is good for memory - the more you remember something, the longer you'll remember it for.

The catch, researchers have discovered, is that each time you retrieve a memory you forget or add small things to it, and the next time you recall the information, you'll remember what you remembered.

"Our memories aren’t like a photograph," says lead study author Donna Bridge. "We mix up details, we forget things. We’re likely to remember this incorrect information just as much as we are the correct (memory)."

In other words, the more you recall an event, the more distorted your memory of that event may be.

Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, asked 12 participants to take a memory test on three subsequent days. The first day, study participants repeatedly placed 180 objects in an assigned location - different for each one - on a computer screen grid. The second day they were asked to place those objects in the same positions. Twenty-four hours later, they did it again.

Bridge measured the distance between where participants placed the object and the correct assigned location. She found that by the third day, participants were placing the object much closer to where they placed the object on the second day than where it was supposed to go.

"This act of remembering ... is an experience in itself," Bridge says. "You might not even be able to distinguish between the original memory and the subsequent event of remembering it."

So you're a cyborg - Now what?

The researchers have a couple of theories as to what exactly is happening.

One is that it's an access problem. Your brain could be like a really full closet - each time you remember something, your brain creates a new item similar to the first and stores it up front. When you go to grab that memory again, you grab the one that's easiest to access.

The other theory is that your brain has a storage problem. Imagine a school locker full of books, binders and miscellaneous junk. Every time you open that locker to grab the memory something falls out, or your brain throws in whatever you happen to have in your hands. Next time you open the locker your keys are missing and a new set of pens has magically appeared.

In a way, the results of the study are kind of creepy. If every memory you have is like the last sentence in a game of telephone, how close is it to what actually happened?

"It makes you question everything about how the system works," Bridge says with a laugh.

To boost memory, shut your eyes


soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    Well I find this concept counter intuitive. The more I repeat something ...say a song lyric or a poem I get better at remembering it accurately. The more I repeat something, say disassembly and assembly of machimery the better I get. The more I talk to someone about an issue, the less embellishments I feel I have to add. I do remember playing "telephone" but my mind just doesn't work that way!

    September 20, 2012 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Glenn

      But when you forget parts of a song you can go listen to it again and perfect your singing. Same goes for assembling an object. You have a working pattern to relearn from. With raw memories you have nothing with which to refresh your memory other than the memory itself. They morph over time. I know this is true whenever I try to remember events on old ski trips. My brother says they happened one way and I say another.

      September 22, 2012 at 10:51 | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      A tune is one of the worst test vehicles for evaluating memory becuase it's piees are so tightly related to each other. The concepts discussed in this article are completely intuitive when you think of memory storage and retrieval as having a "noise" component. Your brain is not a completely digital machine ... it's part analog and suffers from the same defects as when you record something on tape ... play it back to record on another tape machine .. play that second copy back to record it on a third tape ... and so on. The only thing that keeps memories from getting totally messed up over time is that we are intelligent enough to "refresh" things with context and common sense each time we review them.

      September 23, 2012 at 00:24 | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      1. Words are digital information, and are less likely to have drift problems. That's why we use letters and numbers instead of drawing pictures for communication. This is way different from recalling the position of objects or the appearance of the stranger who robbed the convenience store.

      2. Disassembling and reassembling a machine is a repeated learning experience, not just a recall experience. The machine confirms and even corrects your memory each time you do it because the parts disassemble the same and [usually] only fit together one way. Talking to someone can do the same thing, though the two of you might also just be agreeing on shared mistakes.

      3. You might want to look at some original source material for the songs you think you remember. It is possible that you are exceptional at this, but studies have shown that a person's certainty of accurate memory does not correlate well with actual accuracy.

      September 24, 2012 at 14:46 | Report abuse |
  2. jjoonnyy

    Kind of like the media these days....

    September 20, 2012 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mark

    This is why witness testimony is 50% accurate at best. People think they remember events like a video tape, but that is not how your brain works. You remember an analysis of what happens. And as easily as you can misremember a passage in a book, you can misremember your analysis of what happened.

    And tony, you do remember things better the more you repeat it. The problem is that on your second attempt you may not remember perfectly yet how to assemble that machine. So you insert a part a wrong way. Then you go on to repeat that mistake every time after that. So instead of remembering your original instructions, you remember the wrong way and assume they are the original instructions.

    September 21, 2012 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Toa

    Portland tony,
    Then again, to accurately remember that poem or song, you need the original piece. Your brain does not have access to the event it remembers every time it needs to review it, so it makes up new details.

    September 21, 2012 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. if i live to be 110 it is because i eat mass amounts of basil

    i have a couple of issues with this study. first, it is done with a cohort of only twelve people. just twelve people. that's hardly applicable to an entire population (especially on the topic of memory). second, this study was testing memory ... on a computer...and for three whopping days...kind of boring and not exactly reality. perhaps they should have had a man in a clown suit come in and throw a pie at them, then make them each a balloon animal, then tell them some jokes....and tested their memories from that. what kind of pie? what did his tie look like? what was the second joke? did you get a giraffe or a bird balloon? something that is not so absurdly mundane that there is nothing remotely memorable about the situation to begin with. a study on memory with a cohort of only twelve people done in front of a computer ... i can't personally accept the results as realistic data.

    September 21, 2012 at 03:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I_think_about_the_stuff_I read

      I agree; some of these "studies" are ridiculously weak and contrived; small sample, and odd little tests to infer big things. Then its printed on CNN (which I really like as a news source) as "the way things work."

      September 21, 2012 at 12:36 | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      "perhaps they should have had a man in a clown suit come in and
      throw a pie at them, then make them each a balloon animal, then tell
      them some jokes....and tested their memories from that"

      That sort of thing has already been done (though not with a clown), and no, people are not any better at remembering physical events. One guy remembers a blue shirt, another guy remembers a red shirt, and they don't agree on what the person said. And if you really want to screw with their memories, let everyone sit around and talk to each other about it.

      While your point of it being a computer interaction, not a real life event, is a logical objection to this study being generalized... where do you get most of your information from these days? Not from a clown playing it out in person. You get it from computer images.

      September 24, 2012 at 14:53 | Report abuse |
  6. Jack Deal

    12 people aren't enough...how valid can the results be?

    September 21, 2012 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tara

      The number of people isn't as important as the selection method of the people; 12 randomly selected people definitely beats out 30 or 50 hand-selected people. However, in most psychology studies like this, 30-40 is the magic number for finding statistical significance of moderate effects (although Cohen's power analysis should be done to determine the best sample size). Lower numbers of people are usually used for studies that have to take place over time, because people tend to drop out. However, I'd have to agree that a replication is in order simply because a replication is always in order. :)

      September 21, 2012 at 14:30 | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      On its own, no this isn't very big. But this is actually old news. There are loads of other experiments showing basically the same thing. When you "remember" something, you aren't dragging out a picture. You are basically bringing up a loose outline and reassembling the parts. People will mistakenly insert similar wrong concepts, get the order of things reversed, etc.

      September 24, 2012 at 14:32 | Report abuse |
  7. Tara

    I'm pretty sure Elizabeth Loftus already established this eons ago. What is this postdoc contributing that she hasn't already demonstrated?

    September 21, 2012 at 14:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kyphi

      And here I thought this was common knowledge; the more times a person repeats a procedure and uses more than one sense, the better he can do it. Teachers know that.

      September 22, 2012 at 11:44 | Report abuse |
  8. Joe Paz

    I find this study very intuitive, and in fact obvious. Of course the participants will lay the objects more close to the destinations they put them on the second day than on the third. If they wouldn't do that, that would mean they deliberately misplaced objects on the second day.
    This would only have been surprising if they had received feedback on the second day, but that wasn't the case according to this article.

    September 22, 2012 at 04:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Doug

    Third paragraph: "....the longer you'll remember it.....FOR? Where is this writer? Located? At?

    September 22, 2012 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dubhly

    this is part of the way we are raised, with a culture of recording everything for us. I would suggest this test be done with a culture that does not use written word and see what the results are. The kelts were well known for their memory skills, they also refused to use writing, so had to have better memories. I suspect you will find that its like language skills, which effect out thinking patterns.

    September 22, 2012 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Mike Myers

    This article lost me at:
    "the more you remember something, the longer you'll remember it for."
    Sounds like the author forgot that you don't end a sentence with a preposition.

    September 22, 2012 at 10:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rose

      Same thing happened to me. ????

      September 22, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse |
    • dragonwife

      Actually, that's an outdated grammar rule. It's perfectly acceptable nowadays in informal writing to end a sentence with a preposition, assuming the sentence itself makes sense. Otherwise, you could have some awkward or overly-formal old-fashioned construction – for example, "What are you looking for?" vs. "For what are you looking?" If it's formal writing, of course, more of the old rules still apply, but in casual communication several of them have been relaxed. That being said, I still wish people could learn how to spell, punctuate, and construct a coherent sentence. Sigh.

      September 24, 2012 at 15:21 | Report abuse |
  12. mac101

    It would be intriguing to do this study with people who supposedly have photographic memories – do they really have total accurate recall, or do they just remember minutiae better than the average person?

    September 22, 2012 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Palmer

    Can't believe a professional journalist - or his/her editor - would let this get by: "...the more you remember something, the longer you'll remember it for." Don't you know you don't end a sentence with a preposition? Jeesh!

    September 22, 2012 at 11:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. durf786

    They did a study that found that people remember something better one day later than they do two days later. Amazing!

    September 22, 2012 at 14:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. rose

    I disagree. I think that we remember well the important things, what we concentrate on and what really matters to us. On the other hand, less important things might be more or less accurate. If we remembered everything perfectly well our "storage" would be full and we probably would not have capacity for more information (could this be the beginning of Alzheimer's?). That is why we tend to remember some events instead of trivial conversations/encounters.

    September 22, 2012 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tara

      Whoa. First of all, we don't dismiss a scientific study with an "I disagree", because that shows a complete lack of understanding on how this process works. You can offer limitations or situations where the finding might not apply, or suggest methodological error, but this scientist isn't putting forward an opinion for you to dismiss with the wave of your hand. This is how we end up with a society that thinks it's ok to dismiss science in favor of their beliefs.

      Second, I would recommend looking up a few of the more modern memory papers, maybe starting with Loftus. While the narrative of the memory tends to stay more or less true, lots of details change, and lots of those details are important. It's not obligatory that something changes every time, but it is a phenomena that happens over time.

      Third, our brains are not computers. We don't reach "full" on our "hard drive." Ever. Brain = computer is a poor analogy that started near the beginning of the cognitive revolution, and it's been disproven time and again. Alzheimer's is caused by plaques and tangles in the brain matter, and is more likely when you age – it has nothing to do with our memory being full. Actually, in contrast to your proposed cause of Alzheimer's, people who are mentally active and push themselves to do different kinds of cognitive tasks are less likely to get Alzheimer's.

      September 23, 2012 at 13:43 | Report abuse |
  16. rose

    If that theory were true our mathematical knowledge, for instance, among others, would be impaired. Every time I need to calculate a percentage I would come up with a different formula. Every time I "retrieve" a recipe I would add a new ingredient.

    September 22, 2012 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The_Mick

      Rose, that's not true. It's not every time. And remembering a formula or short mathematical procedure is much less challenging than remembering all the details of a visual/verbal/kinesthetic experience. But there are complicated mathematical things that surely require looking up rather than going from memory. My formal mathematical training is through Multivariable Calculus with Linear Algebra. I'm 62 and if I try to solve the famous three body problem for a negatively charged hydrogen atom through Schodinger's Equation, I'm not confident I'll forget something or add something.

      September 23, 2012 at 03:09 | Report abuse |
  17. whizadree

    hmm telephone its called Chinese whispers

    September 22, 2012 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. mackie

    I can totally accept this idea. One of my kids wrote & made up a lot of stories. Over time they began to "remember" those events and believe they had actually occurred. Stories the child picked up from others–all sorts, including abuse stories–were assimilated and combined with real memories. To hear this (now adult) child recount childhood, you would be horrified by the tales (of all the things that didn't really occur.)

    September 23, 2012 at 18:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. fiftysevenpops

    12 people in this study are hardly enough to be conclusive, but this phenomenon has been postulated and proven by other researchers before this. I read a fascinating article in Wired magazine this spring on this very topic. They did a study asking respondents who were in New York to recall 9-11, and they asked them the same questions near the anniversary of the event for several years. They found that by years 4 and 5 almost everybody had changed some details, and for some people they were even saying they witnessed the event from a different location than they actually had... their memory had been so warped by constantly accessing and re-storing the memories.

    September 23, 2012 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. brandon

    very interesting indeed

    September 24, 2012 at 01:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Nosy Ass

    Reblogged this on NosyAss®.com and commented:
    Take good care of your brain and health.. Nurture it, do not pollute it.

    September 24, 2012 at 19:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Kassandra

    This article is so true! The same thing happens to people every day especially me. If someone tells me something I'll either forget and ask them again what they said or just switch up the words they explained to me. For instance my mom kept telling me to call her at certain times and i forgot and she would call me back. I wondered if me forgetting certain things was a bad thing though? Our memories our stored with short term and long term I know that much but is there certain that just disappear in our mind or to forget some things that happen overtime? That's one thing I would like to know.

    September 29, 2012 at 17:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Darian S

    After reading "Your memory is like a game of telephone" I'd have to disagree with the author. Some people are blessed with a very good memory but others are not, or for example injuries way cause affect someones memory. They way people interupt things also takes place in this study, its different for everyone but i believe its the way people interupt things is how they are able to remember or not remember things.

    October 1, 2012 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Tallafornia

    I agree

    October 16, 2012 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply

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