Review and Summary: Why We Remember?

Why We Remember Book Cover

Reading at the title of this book at a glance, “Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters,” makes me thought it was all about why and a little bit about how our brain works on remembering. As I had already read a lot of similar books on the topic, I was not very interested at first. However, reading the high ratings and reviews of this book piqued my curiosity, and I wondered if it might actually be worthwhile to read about the same topic from various authors to broaden my understanding. I’m glad I thought so, because this book truly went beyond my expectations.

Charan Ranganath provides a detail explanation of how our brain works, including the biological aspects. It also presents many surprising insights, like the phenomenon of women who lose their memory and take on new identities, which I’ve seen in movies but didn’t expect that our brain have the capability to do that to us.

Ranganath also answering many questions: why our most intense emotional experiences, like being furious with anger, terrified with fear, or shocked by something terrible, stay so vivid in our memories. He also explains why working in a group can lead to bad memory performance.

The most unsettling part for me was knowing that we can’t completely rely on our memories, even when we believe we remember that clearly. Many external factors influence how we remember certain experiences. The more we remember, the more we change (precisely, update) our memory. So, be careful to how we remember something (or even someone)!

At every subtopic, Ranganath offers practical tips for improving memory. One of them is to let our brain actively struggle with information, which helps us learn and retain it better over time. He also recommends breaking up study sessions into shorter, spaced-out intervals. And don’t underestimate the power of sleep for memory retention!

You can find the summaries and interesting findings from this book below. Believe me, it contains much more knowledge than what I have written below. I recommend you to read it to understand the surprising discoveries about our brain.


Humans Are Designed to Forget

We were taught that the brain is our superpower, making us unique in compared than other creatures. Compared to other artificial memory storage, nothing can beat our brain yet, whether in terms of memory or thinking ability. However, this make us set unrealistic expectations. Not all of us acknowledge that to reach the peak of its superpower, our brain isn’t meant to remember everything.

We forget because our brains need to prioritize information, allowing us to access it quickly when needed. Our memories are flexible and sometimes inaccurate because our brains evolved to navigate a constantly dynamic world. In memory research, the competition between different memories is known as interference. This interference is a major reason why we forget things in our daily lives.

The Two Types of Memory that Make Us Human

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory allows us to recall and even reexperience events from our past. From evolutionary perspective, this type of memory is a crucial skill for curvival to evolve us so that we have the basic ability to learn our location in the world. It is supported by the hippocampus.

Semantic Memory

Semantic memory is our ability to remember facts and knowledge about the world, regardless of when or where we learned them. This type of memory is supported by the perirhinal cortex.

According to Endel Tulving, a professor of psychology, to remember an event (episodic memory), we need to mentally revisit a specific place and time. To use knowledge (semantic memory), we need to apply what we’ve previously learned across different contexts.

Both of this memory are the key to what makes humans fast and intelligent learners.

Wait.. what did I want to do/take going to this room?

You’ve probably experienced walking into a room and forgetting why you went there in the first place. This is a normal consequence of what memory researchers call event boundaries.

We naturally update our sense of context when we sense a change in the world around us. These points mark the boundary between one event and another, significantly impacting episodic memory.

Event boundaries happen frequently and don’t always require a change in location. Any shift in the current context, like a change in the topic of conversation, can create an event boundary.

False Memories

When we remember something, even if we are very confident in our memories and the individual elements are true, the entire story might still be false.

We misunderstanding how memory works. The author suggest to see our memory as more like a painting than a photograph. Paintings mix faithful details, distortions, embellishments, and interpretations, reflecting the artist’s perspective. Thus, we have to see memories as neither purely false nor true; but instead they are constructed in the moment, reflecting fragments of past events and current biases, motivations, and cues.

Motivations help us make sense of events, weaving information into a memorable narrative. Even subtle hints can influence how we remember our past experiences. Our goals, emotions, and beliefs shape how we reconstruct events later.

However, not everyone is equally susceptible to false memories.People with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders may be more resistant to false memories because they often remember events concretely, focusing on details rather than the overall meaning. This resistance might come at the cost of the ability to create meaningful reconstructions of the past.

Then, how do we raise our memories skill?

Give more attention and intention.

Attention is our brain’s way of prioritizing what we see, hear, and think about. To create a memory you can easily recall later, you need to use intention to guide your attention towards something specific. The next time you put down an object you often lose, take a moment to focus on something unique to that time and place.

With a mindful intention, we can counteract our brain’s natural tendency to ignore routine things and build more distinctive memories that stand a better chance against all the interfering noise.

Have some curiosity.

When we want to know something that triggers our curiosity, activity in the dopamine-receptive areas of the brain increases, including the nucleus accumbens. Higher activity in these circuits predicts greater curiosity to find the answer motivate our will to learn.

To be specific, people who experience the greatest learning benefits from curiosity mostly score high on the personality trait called openness to experience. These individuals tend to be receptive to unconventional ideas, appreciate diverse beliefs and cultural practices, and enjoy exploring new places and topics without a specific goal.

Have a good sleep, do regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage stress.

This set of classic healthy lifestyle is the key to improving memory.

Aerobic exercise raises the release of brain chemicals that promote plasticity, improves the vasculature that delivers energy and oxygen to the brain, and reduces inflammation and the risk of cerebrovascular disease and diabetes.

Exercise also improves sleep and reduces stress, mitigating two significant factors that can deplete our prefrontal resources.

The cumulative impact of stress may affect our brain health and even lead to PTSD or other dissociative in memory.

Interesting Facts

1. Hard to Learn New Things Past Age 12

The ability of a baby’s brain to change connections in response to new experiences is called neural plasticity. This capability declines as we age.

After age 12, neural connections around familiar sounds become ingrained, making it harder to learn new things quickly.

2. Multitasking No More

Media multitasking—moving back and forth between different media streams like texts and emails—impairs our memory. This activity thins parts of the prefrontal cortex in people who heavily multitask with media.

3. Limit Camera Use, More Memory Use

The main problem is actually not the technology itself but filtering experiences through a camera lens. Taking photos or videos focuses us on visual details, potentially disengaging us from other cues needed for distinctive memories.

Surely, you are still allowed to document memories. However, make sure to capture a few select, significant moments to allow us to fully experience and remember events.

4. Nostalgia is Not Free

Who does not love reminiscing about our glory days? Sadly, it costs us. The cost of nostalgia is a feeling of disconnection from the present, creating a sense that things aren’t as good as they were in the “good old days.”

5. We Are Easily Misinformed

Despite the flood of misinformation in this current era of technology, we are especially vulnerable to it when remembering. Accessing memories can subtly alter them. As Frederic Bartlett called this as an imaginative reconstruction.

Revisiting a memory repeatedly can lead to changes, like making a copy of a copy. Our neural connections are tweaked, sometimes enlarging certain aspects while losing others.

My Favorite Bits

Our memories are malleable and sometimes inaccurate because our brains were designed to navigate a world that is constantly changing.

Charan Ranganath, Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters

Author: Charan Ranganath, PhD

Publication date: 20 February 2024

Number of pages: 304 pages


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