Could a bad memory actually be good for you?

Could a bad memory actually be good for you?


Some psychologists agree that it could. For instance, Robert Nash, psychologist and lecturer at Aston University, brings a fresh perspective into the science of remembering by suggesting that our memory’s frustrating and inconvenient flaws are actually among its most important characteristics. He shares his approach in an article for The Conversation.

It’s very common to hear people wishing that they had a better memory. Nash confesses that “as a psychologist who studies the science of remembering, it’s especially embarrassing to me that my memory is frequently dreadful. When asked whether I had a good weekend, I often struggle to immediately recollect enough details to provide an answer”.

But it’s precisely his insight into the intricate workings of our brain and memory that makes him awake that human memory isn’t like a recording device for capturing and preserving the moment, or a computer hard disk for storing the past in bulk. Instead, human memory serves up only the gist of an event.

Nash recalls a study, published in the Psychological Science journal, in which university students were asked to recall their high school grades. They were told that the researcher had full access to their official records, so it was clear there was nothing to gain from distorting the truth.

The findings were more than interesting: the students misremembered about a fifth of their grades, but not all grades were misremembered equally. The higher the grade, the more likely the students were to remember it. A-grades were expertly recalled, whereas F-grades were recalled very poorly. Overall, the students were far more likely to recall their grades as being better than they had been, than to recall them as worse than they had been. Such results illustrate how an apparent bad memory can in fact be self-serving, supporting our well-being by pushing us to feel good about ourselves.

Nash concludes that “we should be skeptical about the desirability of a world in which every past event can be retained perfectly in memory: authentic, objective, unapologetic, and unadulterated. Although flawed memories are often a nuisance and sometimes disastrous, they can also do wonders for maintaining our self-esteem, satisfaction, and well-being. In these respects at least, perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical of our manipulative friend, memory, for pulling the wool over our eyes”.

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Andreea is a recent graduate of the University of Bucharest, where she earned a Bachelor's degree in American Cultural Studies. She's currently enrolled in a Master's program in the same field with a particular interest in literature and media studies. She makes the most of her leisure time by reading mystery novels, playing video games and pursuing her greatest passion, photography.