Selective Memory – Why Do We Remember Some Things And Not Others?

April 16, 2018

The psychologist William James once said “If we remembered everything, we would be as ill as if we did not remember anything.Memory at a general level works selectively. It doesn’t remember all the information in the same way, hence the concept of selective memory. For this reason, we store certain memories very deep inside our mind and we remember them perfectly. On the other hand, there are other things that we can’t memorize just as well and we forget them easily.

All of this shows that selective memory is not a specific type of memory. Rather the opposite, the entire mnesic process is selective. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that sometimes we can remember one event from the past, but then we cannot do the same with another. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of selective memory.

The basis of our identity is memory

Memories, in general, tend to work in the same way in all people. Not only in relation to general issues, but also in regard to private beliefs and autobiographical memories that shape our identity. We are our memories.

But identity is not a version of all the events we have been involved in. We don’t file all the days of our life in some part of our brain intact and in equal amounts. To believe this would be to assume that our memory is a kind of exact recording of what we have perceived. This is impossible because we only remember what was in some way meaningful to us. For this reason, our identity is replete with a collection of memories that our selective memory chooses for us.

“Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be expelled”

-Jean Pau

Woman with selective memory

Why do we remember some events and not others?

If we reflect on our memories, we come to the conclusion that there are certain moments that we remember in great detail. There are others, however, which seem not to be so clear. And there are even others that give us the the feeling they have been completely erased from our memory. Why, then, do we remember some events and not others?

The main reason is that in order for us to store information and remember it, our senses have to capture them perfectly. For this to happen, our attention and perception must be working at an optimal level. If they aren’t then we will “lose” information about what has happened. Repetition is also very important so that we can consolidate these memories in our mind.

Another reason seems to be found in a phenomenon we all fall victim to at some point in our lives. It goes by the name of cognitive dissonance. This is what happens when  we maintain two opposing opinions, attitudes or beliefs in our minds. It is a very uncomfortable feeling, and is related to selective memory. In order to alleviate this negative feeling, one tends to discard one of the two opinions, attitudes or beliefs and thus remove the conflict.

Why our memory remembers the good

We can often feel guilty for having done something that went against our beliefs or feelings, such as leaving a job for example. What we do here is to use selective memory to find a way to turn the situation around until we convince ourselves that it really was the right decision. Even if, deep down, we wish we hadn’t made that decision. So, by distorting our thoughts, with the passage of time, the memory we have of that decision will be completely different.

In this way, we remember some events and not others because our brain tends to reject what is unnecessary and to keep what really matters. By way of protection, our memory tends to remember the good and the positive in order to remove from our mind the negative events that cause us pain.

We can clearly see that the function of selective memory is to make a selection of our memories. It places each one where it belongs. Some memories it leaves hidden in our mind because it feels that they don’t contribute anything to us, or that they are not of any real importance. Whereas other memories it places on the front line, just in case we need them.

But not everything that hurts can be forgotten. Sometimes we will continue remembering for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. However, science has shown that it is possible to train our mind to forget unpleasant moments. If we repress them for long enough then they will completely disappear from our memories.

“Thanks to our memories, we have what we have called experience”


Why is selective memory useful?

Not everything that hurts can disappear by magic. As we said earlier, science has shown that it is possible to train our minds to forget unpleasant moments.

The psychologist Gerd Thomas Waldhauser of the University of Lund in Sweden carried out an investigation in which he discovered that thanks to selective memory we can train our mind to forget difficult events. The research confirms that the longer we try to forget a memory, the harder it is to recover it. That is to say, if we were to hide the pain that we suffered due to the loss of a relative for decades, it would be practically impossible to remember the words we heard during their funeral. This strategy is very useful for people with symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

selective memory

Sometimes, overcoming the past is not an option. It is the only way to face the future in a healthy way. Repressing memories that harm us is the greatest use of our selective memory. The possibility of deliberately suppressing those memories that weigh us down or that are the direct cause of many psychological sufferings, is a path that psychology has begun to use, and not only through hypnosis. Memory will always be selective because it is linked to our emotions. But, do we remember what we want or what our memory wants?

We are our memories, we are that surreal museum of inconstant forms, that pile of broken mirrors

-Jorge Luis Borges-