Why is memory so selective?

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How is it I’m able to remember the theme from commercial I saw one time as a child but I can’t remember my first day of school? Why as an adult do I remember the last page I read in a novel without a bookmark but I always forget if my dad’s birthday is the 17th or 19th of a particular month?

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2 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

One factor that seems to be a theme in your examples… when an event is attached to a sound (the jingle) or a specific sight (looking at the page number on your book) it often ‘holds’ a little better.

Your first day of school was a big moment, but there probably wasn’t a singular anchoring experience to remember it specifically. (But do you at least remember how you felt? Excited, scared? Liked it, or didn’t like it?)

As for your dad’s birthday, it seems important, but you don’t have a visual to anchor the exact date. You’d probably be able to remember it better if you wrote out on a piece of paper “Dad’s birthday is on the (whatever the right date is)” and looked at it for a few days, it would ‘lock in’ better, because you’ll be remembering what you saw instead of a fact or idea/experience.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Memories are selectively encoded based on the strength of the associated emotion and the degree to which the memory was rehearsed, so our brain is more likely to recall events that were particularly meaningful or had strong emotional resonance. Your first day of school probably didn’t evoke a strong emotion or leave a lasting impression, but maybe there was something about the commercial that stood out.

Perhaps the reason it’s like that is embedded in our species’ evolutionary past, when it was beneficial to remember the details of a hunt or how to navigate safely through a dangerous environment or even how to find limited food sources like fruits and nuts. We remember the important things and forget the details that weren’t fundamentally important to our survival as a species.

This would also explain why humans remember traumatic experiences that occur early in life.