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Memories: Did you know they are unreliable?

Memories, did you know they are unreliable?

Memories plays a crucial role as a repository for information and experiences, encompassing both the conscious and unconscious mind. It consists of two main components: short-term memory, which holds limited material for a brief period, and long-term memory, where information is stored permanently, enabling us to retain, retrieve, and utilize skills and knowledge through associations and meanings.

Despite its significance, memory’s reliability has been questioned by neuroscientists. They have found that every time we recall a memory, it undergoes a process of reconstruction. This implies that our memories are not fixed snapshots but are subject to change over time, gradually losing their accuracy.

Why are memories unreliable?

Memories are known to be unreliable due to various cognitive and psychological factors. Here are some pieces of evidence and reasons that highlight the unreliability of human memory:

  1. Memory Reconstruction: Memories are not like video recordings; they are reconstructed every time we recall them. During this process, our brains can fill in gaps with plausible information, leading to inaccuracies or even false details being incorporated into the memory.
  2. Eyewitness Testimony: Eyewitness testimony is often considered as strong evidence in legal settings. However, numerous studies have shown that eyewitnesses can be highly susceptible to suggestion, leading to the creation of false memories. They might unknowingly incorporate details suggested by others or external sources into their own recollections.
  3. Misinformation Effect: The misinformation effect occurs when a person’s memory is altered or contaminated by misleading information they are exposed to after the event. Even subtle changes in the way a question is asked can lead individuals to remember events differently.
  4. Source Amnesia: Source amnesia is when people forget the origin of a memory. They may remember the information but not recall where or how they learned it. This can lead to the belief that the information is original or accurate when it might not be.
  5. False Memories: Studies have demonstrated that it is possible to implant false memories in people, making them believe they experienced events that never occurred. These false memories can be surprisingly vivid and challenging to distinguish from real ones.

More reasons not to rely only on memories 

  1. Memory Bias: Memory bias occurs when our current beliefs, feelings, or attitudes influence our memories of past events. Our recollections can be colored by our present state of mind, leading to distortions and inaccuracies.
  2. Repressed Memories: The concept of repressed memories suggests that traumatic experiences can be unconsciously blocked from memory. However, research has shown that memories are not repressed in the way that some theories suggest, and the retrieval of repressed memories can be influenced by outside factors.
  3. Age-Related Memory Decline: As individuals age, their memory abilities can decline. This can lead to inaccuracies in recalling past events, and sometimes, older adults might even confuse details or events from different time periods.
  4. Emotional Influences: Emotional experiences can enhance or impair memory recall. Extreme emotions, such as intense fear or joy, can lead to memory enhancement, but they can also distort memories or make them less accurate.
  5. Post-event Information: Exposure to new information after an event can modify the original memory. This can happen unintentionally through casual conversation, media, or deliberate attempts to change someone’s memory of an event.

Schemas- Generalizations formed based on previous experiences 


In 1932, Frederic Bartlett conducted a significant study where participants were asked to retell a complex Native American story multiple times. Throughout the experiment, Bartlett observed that with each retelling, the story underwent alterations.

He attributed this phenomenon to the use of schemas, which are generalizations formed in the mind based on previous experiences. Bartlett’s conclusion was that our brains tend to fill in gaps in memory using imagination and drawing on similarities to other memories.

Given the inherent inaccuracy of memory revealed by this study and other findings in cognitive and psychological research, blindly relying on it without questioning the retrieved information becomes problematic.

Memories are not perfect, reliable records of our experiences; they are malleable and subject to biases influenced by various internal and external factors. This understanding is crucial in numerous fields, including law, psychology, and everyday interactions.

How perception plays a role 

To address this issue, it is essential to grasp how our brains shape our perception and reality. Perception involves recognizing and interpreting sensory information, attributing meaning to what we observe, and facilitating memory storage. Additionally, our mental state, whether it be happiness, sadness, or agitation, acts as a filter that influences how we perceive events in our lives.

The malleability of our perception raises concerns about the reliability of our memories. Distortions can occur based on individual perception, necessitating an approach of critical scrutiny toward each experience, memory, and emotion. By discovering the truth behind labels and questioning their accuracy and potential biases, we can navigate the limitations of human memory more effectively.

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