Memory Essay

Table of contents

Autobiographic memories are known to be frequently inaccurate. In fact, when a person recalls the past, the images of real events are intermingled with events that either never occurred or are distorted so severely that there is little opportunity to recognize the true happenings in them. This occurs because of the operation of certain principles of memory that render exact memories difficult and almost unrealistic. These principles include schemas and mechanisms of interference explaining why memories can often be inaccurate and misleading.


Schemas directly affect human perception of the outer world, other people. They are even more significant in the conceptualization of what one is and what one believes oneself to be. A person operating on a schema has a distinct perception of one’s own self that fits into a framework pre-specified in the schema. This framework includes a variety of attributes directly related to the life of an individual.

An elderly woman could see her life as one of a devoted Christian. In such a case, she can be willing to shove away the memories that do not demonstrate such a trend in her life. Thus, she may be willing to repress memories of youthful fun that do not fit into her current beliefs and attitudes so that she could feel more comfortable about her past. This can occur not because of intended self-deception, but because of the stated schema that operates at the subconscious level.

A man whose schema is that of a courageous hero will live the life based on this schema. In this case, he will tend to repress memories of his childhood episodes in which he acted as a coward or a villain, in his own current perception. Such incidents will not fit into his schema and thus are repressed as conflicting. The schema in this way governs not only what occurs in the present, but also memories of the past.


Interference is another powerful influence on the mechanisms of memory that makes remembrance of the past often inaccurate. It occurs because a human mind cannot store infinite amounts of information. When new information comes in, it may interfere with the older layers.

Interference falls into two types: proactive interference and retroactive interference. The first kind occurs when “an older memory interferes with remembering a newer memory” (Borree, 2002). This is especially relevant to the successive study of several foreign languages when the knowledge of the previously studied language can interfere with the knowledge of the current one. Retroactive interference, in contrast, occurs when “newer memories interfere with older ones” (Borree, 2002).

The latter type is more relevant to the exploration of autobiographic memory inaccuracy. When the current information conflicts with older layers, it can take precedence over them. A person who has achieved high socioeconomic status in the present may inaccurately believe that his past was also more glorious than it really was. A common occurrence is to see the harsh treatment from parents as intolerable abuse when one is consistently told, for instance, in a therapy course, that he or she was the victim of abuse.

Evidence shows that “some of the people who remembered terrible things like being abused as children were discovered to have created these memories under pressure from their therapists” (Borree, 2002). When people in society are continuously being told about abuse in families, they tend to see their past in the same light, inventing instances of abuse even where they were not present. This represents a case of interference where the past interferes with the present.


Repression is a term that was introduced by Sigmund Freud, the psychologist who invented the psychoanalysis theory. According to him, memories can be repressed if they are too painful or disagreeable to people. Humans tend to “push painful memories out of our awareness and into a deep, dark place called “the unconscious mind” (Borree, 2002). This mechanism, too, can explain how memories are stored in places from which they are never retrieved. This distorts the real picture of the past events.


Many people with susceptible psyche can fall prey to conscious manipulation that leads to the change in their memories post factum. A skilful person using hypnosis can put them in this state. Manipulation can be used in a less conspicuous manner – through the use of specific language, for instance. The lawyer in court who uses the word “tragedy” to describe the misfortunes of the victim will force the victim to believe that he or she has indeed been through a terrible tragedy.


Distortions of events in autobiographic memory can arise for a number of reasons. Schemas, interference, repression and manipulation are just a few mechanisms that can affect human memories. In each case, the result is the distorted perception of the past reality which is influenced by the current cognitive state of the individual.


Boeree, C.G. (2002). Memory. Retrieved August 2, 2006, from








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