Remembering And Forgetting: An Interview With Author Ylva Ostby


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Why do we remember and forget stuff? In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Ylva Ostby, a neuropsychologist from the University of Oslo, who, with her sister, Hilde Ostby, has written a book for everyone about memory.


Their book is called Adventures in Memory and is brand new this week.

The best ways to reach Ylva are:

Ylva.ostby@gmail.com

Ylva.ostby@psykologi.uio.no

@ylvaostby on Instagram and twitter

or through their publisher:

Greystone Books: corina.eberle@greystonbooks.com

 

 

Flashbulb Memories: Vivid But Wrong

Logo for HumanTech podcastIn this podcast episode we talk about a type of memory called “flashbulb” — strong, vivid memories of emotionally charged events that are often inaccurate. And we discuss how collective memories might be changing as media technology changes.

(If you want to read more about memory, check out this blog post on the topic.)


Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Memory

Logo for HumanTech podcastDid you see the movie Inside Out? Remember the colored memory balls — stacks and stacks of them? Well, that’s not how memory works. In this podcast episode we talk about the way we store and retrieve memories.


HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #118 — You Can’t Trust Memories

Photo of woman thinkingHow accurate are memories? Did you see the movie Inside Out? In the movie memories are stored as round colored balls. And the balls can be retrieved and played back. This seems intuitively right. You think back to when you were last at a family gathering or an annual work celebration. You run the event back in your mind, and it almost seems like you’re watching a movie. We think that memories are like digital recordings of specific facts or events. But that’s not how memories are stored or retrieved.

The latest research on memory shows that memories are formed from particular neurons firing. Your brain is being rewired every time you form a memory. But your brain is also firing when you retrieve the memory. And every time you retrieve the memory, it may change based on new information and new memories. You re-create the memory when you retrieve it, so it’s subject to new neuron firings. Each time you retrieve the memory it changes a little more, especially for this type of “autobiographical” memory.

Anything that’s occurred since you first created the memory may affect the original memory. For example, you remember that your Aunt Kathy was at the family reunion last August, but actually she wasn’t at that reunion, she was at the holiday party in October. The memory has been altered and you probably aren’t aware of the alteration.

But some memories are accurate, right? — If I ask you what you were doing on July 21, 2008, you probably won’t remember much, and your memories may be vague, “Was that a weekday? If it was a weekday, I was probably at work.” However, if I ask you what you were doing when you found out about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, you probably have a very strong memory of where you were and what you were doing, because that memory was encoded with a strong emotional charge — these are called “flashbulb” memories.

Ten years later — Within a week of September 11, 2001, several researchers joined together (William Hirst, 2015) in the US and sent out surveys about the event. They then sent out follow-up surveys to the same people eleven months, twenty-five months, and 119 months (almost ten years) after the event. They found that people’s memories of the event (where they were, how they reacted, what happened during the event) changed a lot in the first year, and included many inaccuracies. After the first year the memories stabilized—meaning they didn’t change, but they still contained many inaccuracies. At the ten-year mark the memories remain stable, but still inaccurate.

The researchers also studied also whether external events—how much people watched media accounts, talked to friends, or were personally affected by the events—had an effect on the memories or the inaccuracies. They found no effect. Flashbulb memories change a lot over about a year and then seem to resist change after that.

Memories can be erased — Did you see the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that came out a few years ago? It’s about a service people can hire to erase specific memories. When the movie came out there was speculation that this might be possible, but strong proof wasn’t in. Now, however, we know that it is possible to erase memories. In fact, there are several ways to erase a memory. They’re all based on the idea that when you retrieve a memory you’re actually not retrieving an intact memory and playing it back—you’re recreating the nerve impulses and brain activity you had when you first formed the memory. If you can disrupt the nerve firings, then you can’t create the memory—ever.

There are several ways to disrupt the firings:

1)   Particular proteins facilitate the process of forming a memory. If those proteins are stopped from being created, then you won’t form a memory. There are drugs that inhibit the protein.

2)   Xenon gas interferes with signal pathways in the brain, so if you breathe xenon gas it while recalling a memory it will erase the memory. Xenon gas is used as an anesthetic.

3)   Laser light can change genes and, in doing so, change a memory. The laser light turns genes on or off by stimulating or inhibiting proteins. Interestingly, this method of memory erasing, called optogenetics, is reversible. Amy Chuong (2014) now has developed a way of doing this that doesn’t require anything be implanted in the brain. It can all be done with light outside the brain.

And for those of you who do customer or user research… Uh oh… As a consultant I often do customer and user interviews and testing. During a user test of a clothing website, one person I was working with commented that he didn’t like the purple colors at the website. Half an hour later, when we were discussing his experience, he commented on how much he liked the purple color at the website. Another person I tested was using online banking software to send a wire transfer. The user experience of the product was poor. The person I was testing was so frustrated that she alternated between using bad language and being almost in tears. Half an hour later she said she thought the site was really easy to use. I told her she didn’t have to say that, that she could be honest about her experience. She looked at me in confusion and said, “I am being honest.” It had only been an hour or less, but even after that amount of time the memories of the experience are often different than the experience itself. Interviewing and user testing are one of the main ways to get customer and user feedback, but because they rely on memory, they are flawed methods. What’s a researcher to do?!

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

100 Things You Should Know About People: #94 — Repetition Changes Your Brain

Drawing of a neuronHave you ever wondered what a memory is exactly and how it gets formed? You have hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of memories in your brain. Songs you remember how to sing. Scenes from movies. Memories of last year’s holiday. Facts such as the names of all the planets, and on and on. Do you know what a memory is and how it gets created?

Neurons firing — There are 10 billion neurons in your brain that store information. Electrical impulses flow through a neuron and are moved by neuron-transmitting chemicals across the synaptic gap between neurons. Neurons in your brain fire every time you repeat a word, phrase, song, or phone number you are trying to memorize. Memories are stored as patterns of connections between neurons.

How a memory gets stronger — When two neurons are activated, the connections between them are strengthened. If you repeat the information enough times, the neurons form a “firing trace”. Once the trace is formed, then just starting the sequence triggers the rest of the items, and allows you to retrieve the memory. This is why you need to hear information over and over in order for it to “stick”.

Physical changes in your brain — Experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a few seconds new circuits are formed that can change forever the way you think about something or remember information.

Practice does make perfect — So whether you are trying to remember facts for your next text in school, or learn how to say “I would like a glass of wine” in a new language, or how to play the piano, the more you repeat the activity or thought, the stronger a trace you are making in your brain, and the more likely you will be to remember the information.

 

100 Things You Should Know About People: #90 — Recognition Is Easier Than Recall

Let’s say I asked you to remember this list of words:

Apple

Table

Peach

Window

Chair

Pear

Orange

Fork

Mango

And then later on I asked you to reconstruct the list from memory. That is called a “recall” memory task. Now let’s say I bring you into a kitchen and ask you what items in the kitchen were on the list. That is called a “recognition” memory task.

Recognition is easier than recall — Recognition is easier than recall. Recognition makes use of context. And context can help you remember.

Inclusion errors — Without looking at the the list of words at the top of the blog again, try to write down all the words that were there. Do this now before we continue. Now compare the list of words you wrote down with the list of words at the top. All the words related to things you might find in a kitchen, some were utensils and others were fruit.  There are probably some words that you wrote down that weren’t even in the original list, but that go with the kitchen or fruit, for example, you might have written down “banana”. Banana wasn’t on the list, but it is related to the list through the schema “fruit”. (See the article on schema for more information on how we use schema to think and remember).  A schema can help you remember items, but it also can cause these inclusion errors.

100 Things You Should Know About People: #78 — People Use A Schema To Encode And Remember

Picture of an eyeIf I ask you to describe what a “head” is, you might talk about the brain, hair, eyes, nose, ears, skin, neck, etc. A head is made up of many things, but you’ve gathered all that information together and called it “head”. Similarly I could talk about the concept “eye”. And you would think about all the things that make up an eye: the eyeball, iris, eyelash, eyelid, etc. Psychologists call these groupings a “schema” (the plural is schemata). You use schemata to store information in ,and retrieve information out of, your long term memory.

A schema builds associations — If you can connect new information you encounter to information that is already stored, then it will be easier for it to stick, or stay in long-term memory, and easier to get it out of your memory. A schema allows you to build up these associations in long term memory. Just one schema helps you organize a lot of information. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #78 — People Use A Schema To Encode And Remember”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #60 — Cognitive "Loads" Are The Most "Expensive"

Confused person at computer
Cognitive loads are expensive

You are paying bills at your online banking website. You have to think about what bills need to be paid when, look up your balance, decide how much to pay on your credit cards, and push the right buttons to get the payments processed. As you do this task, you are thinking and remembering (cognitive),  looking at the screen (visual), and pressing buttons, typing, and moving the mouse (motor).

In human factors terminology these are called “loads”. The theory is that there are basically three different kinds of demands or loads that you can make on a person: Cognitive (thinking and remembering), Visual, and Motor.

Not all the loads are equal — Each of the loads uses up different amounts of mental resources. You use up more resources when you ask people to look at something or find something on a screen (visual) than when you ask them to press a button or move a mouse (motor). You use up more resources by asking people to think or remember or do a mental calculation (Cognitive), than when you ask them to look at something on a screen (Visual). So from a human factors point of view, the order of the loads from most “expensive” to least is:

  • Cognitive (most “expensive”)
  • Visual
  • Motor (least “expensive”)

It’s all about trade-offs — From a human factors point of view, when you are designing a product, application, or website,  you are always making trade-offs. If you have to add a few clicks, but by doing so the person doesn’t have to think or remember as much, that is worth it. Clicking is less of a load than thinking. I once did some research on this topic. People had to go through more than 10 clicks to get the task done, and at the end they would look up and smile and say, “That was easy!” because each step was logical and gave them what they expected. They didn’t have to think. Clicking is less of a load than thinking.

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #60 — Cognitive "Loads" Are The Most "Expensive"”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #55 – During Sleep You Consolidate Learnings and Memories

Father and baby sleeping
You Sleep To Learn And Remember

Why do people sleep? — Well, not just people, but all kinds of animals sleep. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a strange idea that for 1/4 to 1/3 of each day we go unconscious and are oblivious to the world around us. Scientists for years have wondered and studied what goes on when we sleep and why we do it.

Some of the best research happens through serendipity — Matthew Wilson was studying brain activity in rats as they run mazes. One day he accidently left the rats hooked up to the equipment he used to record their brain activity. The rats eventually fell asleep, and to Wilson’s surprise, he found that the brain activity while they were asleep was almost the same as the brain activity when the rats were running the maze.

Learning and consolidating — Wilson started a series of experiments to study this more. And through his experiments he has come up with a theory, not just about rats, but about people too: When you sleep and when you dream you are reworking, or consolidating, your experiences from the day. Specifically you are consolidating new memories and making new associations from the information you processed during the day. Your brain is deciding what to remember and what to let go of, or forget.

Sleep don’t cram — Of course we’ve always heard the advice to “get a good night’s sleep” before a big event, or exam. It turns out that that advice was solid. If you want to remember what you have learned the best thing to do is to go to sleep after you learn and before you need to remember it.

And if you like to read research:

Ji D, Wilson MA (2007). “Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature Neuroscience 10: 100-7.

100 Things You Should Know About People: #41 — Your Most Vivid Memories Are Wrong

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

If I ask you to remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, chances are very good that you will be able to tell me in great detail your memory of that day, and how you heard about the attacks. Especially if you live in the US and you were 10 years old or older on that date. But the research shows clearly that you would be wrong about the majority of your memory.

Flashbulb memory is very vivid — Remembering traumatic or dramatic events in great detail is called “flashbulb memory” by psychologists, and has been studied for several decades. Emotions are processed in the amygdala part of the mid-brain, and the amygdala is very close to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in the long term coding of information into memories. So it is no surprise to psychologists that emotionally laden memories might be very strong and remembered vividly.

But the memories are full of errors — It turns out, though, that those memories are full of errors. Ulric Neisser researches memories like these. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded upon take-off. Any of you reading this who are old enough to remember the Challenger explosion probably remember it vividly, i.e., as a flashbulb memory. Neisser took the opportunity to do some research. The day after the explosion he had his students (he is a professor) write down their memories of what had happened, where they were, what they were wearing, what the TV coverage was like, etc. Three years later he asked them to write down their memory of the event again. Most (over 90%) of the 3-yr later reports differed. Half of them were inaccurate in 2/3 of the details. One person, when shown her first description written three years earlier, on the day after the event, said, “I know that’s my handwriting, but I couldn’t possibly have written that”. Similar research has been conducted on the 9/11 memories, with similar results.

The Forgetting Curve of 1885 — In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus created a formula showing the degradation of memories:

Re(−t/S)

where R is memory retention, S is the relative strength of memory, and t is time. The graph at the top of this post is an example of this formula. It’s called the “Forgetting Curve”. Because flashbulb memories are so vivid, it was thought that perhaps they were not as subject to forgetting as other memories. But it turns out they are. Which is kind of disturbing, when you think about it. Because they are so vivid, we are SURE they are accurate and real. But they aren’t nearly as accurate as we think.

Take-Aways – I can think of many ways that we (falsely) rely on people’s memories of events, whether dramatic or not: for example, conducting user or customer research. We often ask customers to remember a particular encounter with a website, software, or an in-store experience. We may have to realize that the memories, although vivid, might not be accurate.

What do you think?  Can you think of situations where you perhaps rely on people’s memories more than you should?

For more reading and information:

Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong, Harper Collins, 2010

Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory, Houghton Mifflin, 2001

Neisser and Harsh, “Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing the News about Challenger”, in Winograd and Neisser (eds) Affect and Accuracy in Recall, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 9-31.

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