People’s memories literally fade in vibrancy over time, research finds.
Colours get less vivid, sounds quieter and lights dimmer.
In fact, memory is something like an old printed photograph fading away over the years.
Even emotionally vivid moments — whether positive or negative — still tend to fade away.
Despite this, people generally still remember the gist of memories.
Dr Rose Cooper, the study’s first author, said:
“We found that memories seem to literally fade: people consistently remembered visual scenes as being less vibrant than they were originally experienced.
We had expected that memories would get less accurate after a delay, but we did not expect that there would be this qualitative shift in the way that they were remembered.”
For the study people were shown images that varied in colour saturation and brightness.
When they remembered these photos later on, their memories were consistently less bright and colourful than the originals.
People were more likely to remember negative pictures, but these negative memories had still faded in just the same way.
Dr Cooper said:
“We were also surprised to find that emotional memories did not influence the amount of fading, only the likelihood with which people remembered the images at all.”
Professor Elizabeth Kensinger, study co-author, likened this memory fade out effect to an Instagram filter:
“A simple analogy is what happens when you post a photo on Instagram.
You’re cued to apply a filter that changes the brightness or color saturation of the image.
In our study, we asked if forgetting is like applying a filter to past experience, and whether or not the emotional significance of the event would change which filter you apply.”
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
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Cooper et al., 2019).