Memory Losses May Be A Good Thing

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A cognitive scientist specializing in human perception has theorized that lapses in memory may actually show that our brains are working optimally given all the constraints that overload and noise inflict on us.

In an interesting essay in The Conversation, Professor Robert Jacobs reports that

“[p]eople often make errors when remembering, reasoning, deciding, planning or acting, especially in situations when information is ambiguous or uncertain … the statistically optimal strategy when performing cognitive tasks is to combine information from data, such as things one has observed or experienced, with general knowledge about how the world typically works. Researchers found that the errors made by optimal strategies – inevitable errors due to ambiguity and uncertainty – resemble the errors people really make, suggesting that people may be performing cognitive tasks as well as they can be performed … If so, then errors are not necessarily indicators of faulty mental processing. In fact, people’s perceptual and cognitive systems may actually be working quite well.”

He notes that

“When you place an item in memory, it’s as if you’re sending a message to your future self. However, this channel has limited capacity, and thus it cannot transmit all details of a message. Consequently, a message retrieved from memory at a later time may not be the same as the message placed into memory at the earlier time … In addition, people tend to remember the general gist of an item placed in memory, while forgetting its fine details. When this occurs, people tend to mentally “fill in” the missing details with the most frequent or commonplace properties. In a sense, the use of commonplace properties when details are missing is a type of heuristic – it is a quick-and-dirty strategy that will often work well but sometimes fail.”

And there, I thought it was just me getting old!

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