Douwe Draaisma on Memory & Forgetting

We had the chance to sit down with renowned memory scholar, Douwe Draaisma, author of  The Nostalgia Factory, to discuss his new publication Forgetting: Myths, Perils and CompensationsIn this exciting book Draaisma focuses on what he regards as the ‘miracle’ of forgetting, reevaluating the phenomenon as something that is very positive and essential to our very existence. 

Yale: Favourite fact – during the course of researching and writing ‘Forgetting’, is there any particular piece of evidence or little-known fact that stands out for you?

Douwe Draaisma: There is. I was intrigued by the phenomenon that my dear colleagues sometimes remember my ideas, but seem to have forgotten that is was my idea. This is a case of ‘cryptomnesia’ and it turned out there is a convincing explanation for it. When someone presents an idea, different aspects of this situation get processed in different types of memory. Semantic memory takes care of the meaning of the idea, its connection with other ideas, and so on. Autobiographical memory retains the fact that it was this particular person who came up with the idea. Semantic memory helps you remember the facts, the information, but does a poor job in retaining the circumstances in which you acquired these facts. Most people know that Madrid is the capital of Spain, but few will remember how and when this particular piece of information entered their memory. So these colleagues aren’t simply forgetful – after all, they remember my idea very well – it’s just that the source, poor me, slipped their semantic memory.

Y: The book includes a chapter ‘Why We Forget Dreams’. What did you find the most convincing argument about [forgetting dreams] the purpose of dreams with regards to memory? 

DD: There is a mechanism that is probably only part of the explanation, but hadn’t occurred to me earlier. When you wake up from a dream you wake up with the final scene in the dream-story, for instance that you are trapped in a cellar. Then you try to reconstruct how you came there and may remember that you were hiding there because someone had entered your home. So you try to reconstruct your dream by following it against the direction of time, backwards. And this implies that you have no help of what normally helps you to remember stories, such as the fact that causes come first and effects later or questions first, answers later. And since working backwards is a time-consuming thing, the beginning of the dream will have faded once you get there. Remembering a dream is like watching the movie Memento.

Y: From Sudoku to vitamin sprays… Are there actually any proven methods for sharpening the memory?

DD: Sadly, no. You can boost your memory for facts in a particular area of interest, as any stamp collector, Proust scholar or train spotter knows, but these sometimes prodigiously developed memories do not help you to better remember facts outside this special field of expertise.

Y: There is an engaging Q&A section for readers at the end of the book. To ask you a variation on one of these questions: do you have less faith in your memories … since researching and writing this book?

DD: I was skeptical about the veracity of many of my own memories to begin with, simply as a consequence of being in my early sixties and having had sobering experiences with checking my memories against diaries, letters or photographs. There have been cases where I flatly denied having been present at some party or meeting, until someone produced a photograph with me on it. Or cases where I was dead sure I hadn’t seen a particular movie and after twenty-or-so minutes in the movie I had to admit to myself that I had seen this one before (often, embarrassingly, after the first romantic scenes). Writing on one’s earliest memories also made me aware that there is a chance that what I take to be my first memory is actually a story that runs in my family.

Y: These questions for readers at the end of the book, is there one question you like in particular?

DD: There is, actually there are two. The first one is ‘If there was a technique for forgetting, would you make use of it?’ Sometimes people tell me they wouldn’t, because even embarrassing or painful memories have helped to shape their identity, they are part of the person they have become. And, they sometimes add, painful memories are also danger signals, they warn you not to get in embarrassing situations again. If someone gives you a heroic answer like this, I suggest you follow up by asking ‘Have you ever wished you could make someone forget a memory of you?’ Invariably, there are more than a handful of things they would love to erase from someone else’s memory. And they will have no scruples whatsoever about the fact that this particular memory may function as a danger signal for the other person. I once brought up this question at a dinner and noticed that my partner in conversation started to blush. I did not pursue the matter.

Douwe Draaisma is professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen and author of several best-selling books on topics relating to memory.

Forgetting by Douwe Draaisma

Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations by Douwe Draaisma is available from Yale University Press

Image courtesy of judy_and_ed via Flickr

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