There are two different ways of processing memories — and they may determine what you recall later on, a new study finds.
Some people tend to have more detailed memories of past experiences while others focus more on the bare facts.
The new study’s authors explain:
“For example, the fluent recovery of sensory details from specific events, such as vividly recollecting the soft baguette and creamy cheese from a dinner eaten on a recent trip to Paris, promotes a rich experience of recollection.
Conversely, reflecting on the knowledge that one enjoyed Paris and was impressed by the food focuses recall at an implicational level as opposed to reliving or simulating event details.”
This difference could be down to the way our brains are built.
Researchers have found that different ways of remembering the past are linked to different patterns of connectivity in the brain.
Dr. Signy Sheldon, who led the study, said:
“For decades, nearly all research on memory and brain function has treated people as the same, averaging across individuals.
Yet as we know from experience and from comparing our recollection to others, peoples’ memory traits vary.
Our study shows that these memory traits correspond to stable differences in brain function, even when we are not asking people to perform memory tasks while in the scanner.”
For the research 66 people took a test of autobiographical memory.
As is normal, some people could clearly remember past events with considerable detail.
Other people could not.
Naturally, most people were in between, being able to remember some dates and events with clarity, while others were a blur.
They were then scanned to measure communication between different areas of their brains.
The results suggested a spectrum along which people vary.
Some people have higher connectivity between an area involved in memory (the medial temporal lobe) and those involved in vision (at the back of the brain).
This gives them more richly detailed autobiographical memories.
Other people relied more on connections from memory to the frontal regions of the brain.
The front of the brain is more involved with reasoning and organisation.
This could provide the clue as to why some people simply remember the food was good in Paris while others can still almost taste it.
But if you do find it difficult to recall details of where you’ve been, what you’ve done and said then it may just be the way your brain is built.
The findings could have implications for brain health, said Professor Brian Levine, another of the study’s authors:
“With aging and early dementia, one of the first things that people notice is difficulty retrieving the details of events.
Yet no one has looked at how this relates to memory traits.
People who are used to retrieving richly-detailed memories may be very sensitive to subtle memory changes as they age, whereas those who rely on a factual approach may prove to be more resistant to such changes.”
The study was published in the journal Cortex (Sheldon et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Brain image from Shutterstock