in: Health, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: May 6, 2024

Podcast #984: Why Your Memory Seems Bad (It’s Not Just Age)

Do you sometimes walk to another room in your house to get something, but then can’t remember what it was you wanted? Do you sometimes forget about an appointment or struggle to remember someone’s name?

You may have chalked these lapses in memory up to getting older. And age can indeed play a role in the diminishing power of memory. But as my guest will tell us, there are other factors at play as well.

Charan Ranganath is a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and the author of Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters. Today on the show, Charan explains how factors like how we direct our attention, take photos, and move through something called “event boundaries” all affect our memory, and how our current context in life impacts which memories we’re able to recall from the past. We also talk about how to reverse engineer these factors to improve your memory.

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Book cover titled "Why We Remember" by Charan Ranganath, PhD, featuring a white cloud on a clear blue background, symbolizing memory retention and the impact of age on memory.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Do you sometimes walk into another room in your house to get something, but then can’t remember what it was you wanted? Do you sometimes forget about an appointment or struggle to remember someone’s name? You may have chalked these lapses in memory up to getting older. And age can indeed play a role in the diminishing power of memory. But as my guest will tell us, there are other factors at play as well. Charan Ranganath is a neuroscientist, psychologist, and the author of Why We Remember, Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters. Today on the show, Charan explains how factors like how we direct our attention, take photos, and move through something called event boundaries all affect our memory, and how our current context in life impacts which memories we’re able to recall from the past. We also talk about how to reverse engineer these factors to improve your memory. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Charan Ranganath, welcome to the show.

Charan Raghunath: Thank you very much, Brett. Great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a neuroscientist and you’ve spent your career, 20 plus years, researching memory. And we’re gonna talk today about why we remember some things, why we forget other stuff and what we can do to improve our memory. But after I read your book, one of the big takeaways I got from it was that memory is more than just an archive of our past, that actually memory shapes our day-to-day lives. So how does memory influence our lives beyond just being able to recall events?

Charan Raghunath: So one just very kind of simple example would be let’s say you wake up in a hotel room, your first question as you wake up as you’re a little disoriented and probably without even thinking about it you’re having this moment of, where am I? And just to situate yourself in time and space, it’s like you can look around you know where you are in the room, but, where is this room? It could be in like a prison somewhere or it could be in like a resort, who knows, and so you have to rely on memory just to get to that point to dig you out of that hole and tell you exactly where you are. So let’s take a slightly more complex example now like let’s say for instance you are trying to choose which restaurant you wanna go to and you have like a usual restaurant that’s pretty good but then lately they changed the menu and, you know, the last time you went there you had a terrible meal.

Brett McKay: So you can use memory to basically say, you know what, I’m going to go to someplace different this time. And then we can take something like a big choice. So I decided to go into research in cognitive neuroscience, but my training was in clinical psychology. And I actually had the chance to do a clinical internship in which I could have been on a career path to make lots of money in a clinical career. And when I look back on that decision, what I asked myself was essentially, what are the kinds of moments that I feel most comfortable in, that I’m happiest about? When I thought about the instances in which I was in the clinic, I thought, okay, I have to be dressed up well. I have to be there early in the morning. I have to be on when people say there’s a lot of pressure because if I don’t get things right, bad things can happen.

Charan Raghunath: Versus the times that I could remember from being in research where I was like staying up late, drinking beers and eating pizza in the lab while we were working late for a conference or something like that. And the people that I hung out with in the lab versus the more kind of formal environment in the clinic. And it was just a no-brainer. And so these hard life decisions are very very complicated we’re making them based on insufficient information and so we rely on memory to give us that data that we need to make these decisions about our future.

Brett McKay: And as we’ll see in this conversation too, memory is connected to a lot of other things in our lives that we might not think are connected to memory. The ability to imagine things, that’s connected to memory. How we situate ourselves, not only in place, like that example you gave, you wake up in a hotel room, you’re like, “Where the heck am I?” But also in time. But let’s get to this question. I think a lot of people might have this. Why do we remember some things, but not others? And then the follow-up question is, what can that answer tell us about how memory works?

Charan Raghunath: When we look at the design of the brain, what you see over and over and over again, whatever system you look at, is that the brain is optimizing to make the most of a little bit of information. And so what I mean by that is if we see the world, we’re not literally looking at everything. We’re only grabbing little bits and pieces of the world with our eyes by just moving our eyes and focusing in different places and then assembling that into a meaningful picture. So we know that even our ability to perceive the world is limited and our ability to hold things in attention is limited. So what makes things memorable and what makes things grab our attention, there’s a high relationship between them. They’re often things that are biologically important. So something that you’ll probably find this, I imagine yourself, Brett, if you look back on things in your life, you probably remember the first things that will come to mind will be the highs and lows, right?

Things that are very emotionally, there were exciting or times where you were scared or times where you felt intense desire. And these are biologically important moments where there are chemicals in the brain that promote plasticity that are released during these moments. So that right off the bat tells you something about why some events are memorable is because they’re biologically important. Other events that would be also important would be things that are new or things that are surprising. So we often remember these events that really surprise us because they stick out. And some of that is related to a phenomenon I’ll get into with regards to interference. But some of it is also when we’re surprised or when we’re in a brand new place that we’ve never been to before. Again, there’s these release of neuromodulators, these chemicals in our brain that promote plasticity. So those are some of the key factors. And another key factor, as I mentioned is the fact that memories compete with each other.

And this is a phenomenon called interference. So I think intuitively, we might think of memory as being like I store a bunch of files in my hard disk. And more or less, if I store 10 files or if I store 20 files, it doesn’t make a difference. But that’s not how memory works. In human memory, the memories are competing with each other. And so if I’m trying to remember, Brett, let’s say, your name, I meet you sometime in person. We go into the real world as opposed to the virtual world. I meet you, we have a beer or something like that. Then later on, I meet someone named Britt. Well, remembering Britt is going to be complicated because I’ve just learned about Brett and there’s going to be this interference between them. So the way that memories can survive that competition is if there’s something distinctive that makes this memory different from something else.

So if I had something about your name and I could tie it with something interesting about you that I learned and make that all into one big story, for instance, then now all of a sudden you’re very, very different from Britt because Britt is just sound that I heard. And this is the way in which memories can stick around is if we’re attending to something that allows us to capture what’s unique about this moment in time. So the sights, the sounds, the smells, emotions, something that you think about that’s unique.

Brett McKay: Does our brain store memories in a specific part of the brain?

Charan Raghunath: Well, this is a very tough question to answer because essentially it comes down to what is the memory. And so there’s many different ways memory can be manifest. One is your ability to just know, call upon facts, general knowledge that you have about the world. And that’s called semantic memory. And then there’s your ability to remember specific events in your life, like episodic memory. So, I know that Def Leppard was a British metal band that played very melodic songs in the 1980s, but that’s different than my memory for seeing them in the round during the Hysteria tour, which was a little bit after they had peaked. But nonetheless, that’s an episodic memory from one point in time. And so those kinds of memories differ from each other. Now, the hippocampus is an area of the brain that’s known to be very important for forming new episodic memories. And it doesn’t do it by itself, but what it does is it ties together all of these different parts of the brain that are processing the different kinds of aspects of the semantics of your world. Does that make sense? Am I kind of getting too…

Brett McKay: No, that’s making sense so far, yeah.

Charan Raghunath: Yeah. So a lot of what people think of when they think of the memory loss, for instance, that you see in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, that’s related in part to the loss of the hippocampus, because what happens is people start to lose this ability to form new episodic memories. They still have knowledge of who they are, all the people they know in those early stages, but they lose this ability to form new episodic memories. And so that’s why the hippocampus is such a big player in memories, ’cause it plays this role in just arbitrarily saying, in some ways, the hippocampus, I mean, if we were to pretend the hippocampus is a person instead of a brain area, you could say, well, it’s being deliberately dumb. It’s not thinking about why things should go together. It’s just saying, “Hey, I happened to see Brett in the pub while the song was playing in the background all at the same moment in time.” And that’s what the memory is. It’s just this random coincidence of factors.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the hippocampus is involved in episodic memories.

Charan Raghunath: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: Something that you’ve researched a lot and found, and it’s been groundbreaking, is the role the prefrontal cortex plays in memory. People might be familiar with the idea that the prefrontal cortex can be used as short-term memory, it’s sort of used as… The analogy is the prefrontal cortex is like RAM. It’s like working memory. So if you need to temporarily remember something, prefrontal cortex can take that for longer-term memories. You go to the hippocampus. What your research has found is no, the prefrontal cortex actually plays a bigger role in those long-term memories. What role does the prefrontal cortex play?

Charan Raghunath: Yeah, I think that I’m really glad you brought up that RAM analogy because I think that was very popular for a long time in psychology that we used to think of humans as being like computers in this very kind of straightforward way, but we’re not. What the prefrontal cortex seems to be about is it’s kind of a, again, I’m gonna use these analogies just to keep things simple, although I hope people with a more scientific background won’t get mad at me for this. But a lot of people use the term executive to describe what the prefrontal cortex does. And what that means is, you know, an executive who’s running a company really has no useful skills. You’re not gonna trust them with the accounting. You’re not gonna trust them to like handle the mailroom or anything like that. But their job is really to oversee everything coordinated towards a common goal.

And that’s what the prefrontal cortex is all about. So for a long time, people used to think, oh, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t do anything because people could lose a prefrontal cortex and they would still walk and talk and have all the knowledge they did before, but they couldn’t function in the real world because they had no ability to use that information to get their goals achieved. And so you brought up this idea of short-term memory. And so part of the idea of being able to hold a phone number, say, in short-term memory, like if I give you a phone number or if I say, “Hey, here’s your temporary password. I need you to reset it so that you can get back into your bank account.” You’re keeping that information in mind. But to do that, you have to keep yourself from being distracted. There’s a kid crying in the background or maybe you’re getting a text alert on your phone and you have to suppress those distractions to focus on what’s relevant.

And that’s where the prefrontal cortex comes in. But that same ability is also what allows you to be present in the moment and focus on what’s important, like where I put my keys or where I put my phone, as opposed to the things that may be less important but could grab your attention, like the sound of a dog barking or a kettle whistling or something. Things that you need to take care of, but they’re not necessarily related to these other long-term goals.

Brett McKay: And so this idea that the prefrontal cortex directs our attention to stuff that we wanna remember. And if we’re distracted, we might not remember that thing. That explains like why we forget, like, where did I put my keys? Where did I put my wallet? Because you just, you weren’t, your prefrontal cortex kind of checked out when you just dropped them on the counter and you weren’t paying attention. So it was just like, “Yeah, we’re not gonna remember that.”

Charan Raghunath: That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right. And so, and sometimes what happens is our prefrontal cortex isn’t checking out, but it’s actually, sometimes we intentionally do it. We switch from one task to another. We’ll go, “Oh, yeah,” I’m gonna be like, I’m walking in the door, I’ve got my keys, but then I just decide habitually to check my email or something. And so the prefrontal cortex is saying, “Okay, let’s shift gears. Now my goal is to check email.” And so the next time when you go back to your keys, you’re already a step behind because your prefrontal cortex has to use all these resources just to shift back from the email task back to whatever it was you were doing when you opened the door. And so as a result, our resources become too depleted, spread too thin, and we can’t focus in on what we need. So sometimes the prefrontal cortex is there, but we misdirect it because we have bad habits.

Brett McKay: Right. Or it could just be overwhelmed I think you highlighted some research how constantly using social media that can inhibit memory because your prefrontal cortex has got all this information just… You’re blasting it and it then it can’t remember stuff you actually wanna remember.

Charan Raghunath: That’s exactly right. Yeah. So you can be blasted both by switching between these things. And again, a lot of this is under our control, so to speak, meaning that we don’t have to check social media all the time. Like right now, if I was being sloppy, I would be checking social media in between points in our conversation, which would be horrible for my ability to remember our conversation later on, which is why I turned off all my alerts and I went into focus mode for this conversation because otherwise I’d be having this conversation and then somebody would say, “Hey, what did you do today?” And I’d be like, “I was on this amazing podcast, but I can’t remember anything about it.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. And this might explain like why as you get older, I mean, there’s a couple of things going on as you get older, why your memory feels like it’s not as sharp. But I just think as you get older into your 30s and your 40s and your 50s, you have a lot more going on in your life, a lot more stuff to keep track of, keeping track of your kid’s schedule, your work schedule, things that need to be done on the house. And so, yeah, you’re probably gonna forget that your glasses are on top of your head because you got so much going on.

Charan Raghunath: That’s a very good point. So as we get older, there’s a bunch of things that happen. So one is, that we have a lot of stresses, we have a lot of pressures, and we have a lot of competing things and deadlines and so forth. And so when we’re under stress, the natural response of the brain is to down-regulate the prefrontal cortex. You wanna go into more of a responsive mode rather than a mode of planning and deliberation. And so we’re now compromised because of that stress. But then on top of it, as we get older, on average, the prefrontal cortex shrinks a little bit. It’s not functioning as efficiently as it should. And then we’re maybe having some health issues. Maybe we just got over a bout of COVID. Maybe you’re not sleeping as well as you used to. And so all of these factors can compromise the frontal cortex even more. So one of the things I think a lot about is how modern life is just optimized to deplete our mental resources and put us in the state of perpetual amnesia.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the prefrontal cortex plays a role in memory by directing where we place our attention. And then when we don’t give something sufficient attention, we can’t remember it. So, if we got a lot going on in our lives, we tend to be forgetful because there’s just too many things to pay attention to. It overwhelms the prefrontal cortex. And then when you’re multitasking, you’re task switching a lot, you can’t give any one task enough attention to remember what’s going on with it and do it well. And then all these things, it can cause stress and that can deplete the strength of the prefrontal cortex as well as other things like lack of sleep. Something related to this is how the use of smartphone cameras affects how we remember an experience. What does the research say there?

Charan Raghunath: So, on average, the research shows pretty significantly that when we use cameras to document our lives, we actually have a paradoxically lower memory for those events. And I think people have this intuitive idea that if I take a picture of this event, I will remember it. And in theory, that could be true. But what often happens is people don’t go back to the pictures, right, ’cause we collect gobs and gobs of pictures and then on top of it, we’re mindlessly documenting these things. And you can see this with the rise of Instagram walls everywhere, right? So it becomes no longer about the experience, but about the picture. And so what happens is, is that people tend to have a poor memory for these experiences when they’ve been focused on taking the pictures and posting them now it doesn’t have to be that way so you could be more selective in the way that you take pictures and use the camera as a tool for grounding you in the moment and say, “What’s really going on here? What’s interesting here?” And then selectively take pictures that are planting cues in your mind for later on being able to remember them. Because that’s what a lot of memory is, is if you have the right cues, some distinctive thing that you’re seeing or smelling or hearing, that’s what allows you to go back and revisit that moment. And so we can be mindful about picture taking.

One study found that if people are in that kind of condition, you can actually improve memory. Another way you can do it is by actually going back to those pictures. So we can think of, like, an Instagram story or a Snapchat post as being a metaphor for how photos actually have this amnesia quality, where you post something, and then two days, it disappears. And this is what I think we often do with our photos. But if you actually. One of the things I do like is what’s called Facebook memories, where they put on a photo that you haven’t seen in years, but you posted it a while back, and that’s now a cue to recall that memory.

And the act of recalling that memory now makes it more accessible later on, so that way you can remember it again. So the act of remembering makes it more memorable.

Brett McKay: Okay, so if you’re going to take pictures, I think going back to what we were saying about the role of the prefrontal cortex in memory, if you’re just focused on taking the perfect picture and thinking, “Oh, this would be great for Instagram, and what are my friends gonna think about?” The way you’re directing your attention, you’re putting it on the picture taking itself. I mean, you’re not really present. You’re not there. And because of that, you’re not gonna remember the experience as much. But you could, if you direct your attention differently, even while taking a picture, that can enhance your memory if you wanted to.

Charan Raghunath: Yes, I would say that if you… You can use your prefrontal cortex. Say, if my goal is to have a memorable experience, I can actually, first of all, think about what’s in front of me, think about the sights and the sounds and the smells and so forth, and immerse myself in it. Immerse myself in this moment. But then when I do take pictures, you can actually ask yourself, what would be a good reminder of this moment? What are the points in this moment that I want to remember? What are the points in this moment that I don’t want to document? I think lots of times we just take pictures without ever even thinking, is this the memory that I want to be calling back? Because ultimately, once we start taking these pictures, those pictures will have a disproportionate effect on what we remember. So how many times have you taken a vacation and you take pictures, and the events that you remember later on are those events that you photographed and the ones that you didn’t photograph get thrown to the side? Has this ever happened to you?

Brett McKay: Yeah, no, for sure.

Charan Raghunath: So, yeah, so that’s I think part of it is the camera can be a tool. And again, if you use your frontal cortex to say, “What do I want out of this experience?” The camera can be a tool to get it, as opposed to a distraction that just takes you away from what you want.

Brett McKay: So going back to this idea of episodic memory, this is sort of remembering events in our lives that happened to us. Why is it that we have a harder time with episodic memory as we get older? So I think we mentioned some things, right? You have just a lot going on in your life. There’s stress. Your prefrontal cortex shrinks as you get older. But, I mean, I’ve noticed this in my own life, and I think you talk about this in the book. I can remember stuff from when I was middle school through age 30. Like, very vividly. I remember college. I remember traveling internationally. I remember high school football. But then after age 30ish, things are kind of like… I kind of remember doing that, but it’s not as in much detail as those teenage years. What’s going on there?

Charan Raghunath: Well, this is something that’s very, very common. In fact, memory researchers have a name for it, which is the reminiscence bump. And the idea behind the reminiscence bump is that if you just plot the number of memories that people will report if you ask them about different times of their lives, and you just make a little graph out of it, there’s a big bump in the graph from the years between the ages of 18 to 30, and there’s a number of reasons for that. And one big reason is that that’s when our sense of who we are is actually emerging. And so the experiences that we have during that time period are very tied to our sense of identity. And that’s the time when we’re forming our tastes in music in food, and we’re finding the friendships that help define us and so forth.

And so we tend to call upon those memories more as a result. And as I was saying, the memories that you call upon the most will be strengthened each time you call upon them.

Brett McKay: Another theory as to why we remember more from our youth is that memory is enhanced when we encounter something novel. And when we’re young, we’ve got a lot of novel things. There’s a lot of first, we do a lot of new things. And so when the brain encounters that, its memory camera is like, “Oh, hey, this is novel. This might be important. We’re going to take a lot of footage of this.” So then when you look back on it, there’s a lot of memory footage to unspool. But as adults we tend to get into a routine, we experience less novelty. Each day, I mean, even year, is just a lot like the last one. So the memory camera just, like, turns off. It’s like, “Well, I’ve seen this before. No need to capture it.”

So when we look back, there’s not a lot of memory footage to unspool. So if you want more memories in adulthood, you’re gonna have to do more novel things. More memorable things. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. How can understanding how episodic memory works help us understand why it is when we go into the kitchen for something, we forget why we went into the kitchen. What’s going on there?

Charan Raghunath: This is one of my favorite topics and actually something that we’re studying a lot in my lab right now. Even though our lives are continuous, what happens is we tend to remember our lives as a series of events. Like, I went to the kitchen, I went to someone’s 21st birthday party, blah, blah, blah. And so what we think happens is that as we go about our day, you’re creating a little story in your head. That’s okay. So my job right now is to talk to Brett and answer this question. I’m keeping your question in mind. I’m thinking of all these ways of answering it. But then we move on to another question, and I flush that information out. I focus on the new question you’re asking.

And that time, when I pivot from question one to question two is what we would call an event boundary. It means that one event is over, another has begun. And what we can see when we scan people’s brains is at those moments, there’s almost a tectonic shift in the patterns of brain activity, where you see this change in patterns as people’s story about the world changes in a moment.

And so what’s interesting is, is that even the act of just moving from one room to another can give you that. So if I take a few steps right now, if I were just stand up, take a few steps to my right, I’d be in my room. And then one more step, and I’m crossing into the hallway. And even though it’s just another step, I would psychologically feel like I’m in a new place. And that change in your spatial context is enough to create an event boundary. And because context is so important for memory, that is episodic memories are so tied to a time and a place that in the time it takes me to go to the kitchen, now I’ve shifted across two or three rooms. And now when I go back and try to remember why I went to the kitchen, I have to engage in this act of mental time travel to recall what I was doing back in that time period when I was in my room.

Brett McKay: And that’s why it’s often helpful if you go back to the room you were in originally, you’ll remember why you went to the kitchen.

Charan Raghunath: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. So then what happens is, for me personally, I’ll go to the kitchen, I’ll say, “Oh, what was I here for?” Then I’ll just grab some food and eat it. And then I come back to my office, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I left my phone in there.” I realized, okay, over the course of the past year, I probably consumed thousands of calories because of these damn event boundaries.

Brett McKay: As I read about that idea about event boundaries, it made me wonder if this can help explain. Whenever I read stuff on a digital device, like my smartphone with the Kindle app, I don’t remember as much as when I’m reading from a paperback book.

And I think it’s it could be because when you’re on a device, it could be on the Kindle app, and then immediately I can swipe over to Instagram or my email. That event boundary when I’m reading on my phone, it’s just really porous. I’m switching back and forth between events, so I’m. I’m remembering less about each. But with a book, like a paperback book, there’s a clear event boundary in its pages. When I’m reading, I’m reading. I’m just in the book, it’s just one event.

And I’ve noticed that whenever I read a paperback book, I remember it more. I can find things, and I can remember where some quote that I highlighted is. I know which part of the book it’s in, but I don’t have that experience when I’m reading on the Kindle app.

Charan Raghunath: Yeah. So there’s definitely physical aspects of holding a book that are different than the way we interact with a Kindle, for instance. And so that can lead our reading experience change, which is going to change memorability. So one of the things that you mentioned is just the fact that if you’re using a device that has more than just a reading app on it, it’s just so tempting to think of other things. So, when you pick up that device, your brain is considering all the possible tasks you could do on that device. And so it’s almost like you’re at a buffet.

I don’t know about you, but if I ever go to a buffet, I’m eating one thing, but I’m thinking about all the other things I could be eating, right? So, again, I’m never really there. And with a book, on the other hand, you have no choice. You’re sort of stuck with it.

And also with a book, there’s a way in which there’s a spatial sense of where the plot is, because, essentially, there’s a physical place for each word on this book. But on the screen, it’s a little different, because every page appears on the same screen, so it gives you a little bit more distinctiveness.

And all these factors put together, I believe, make it easier. I think you brought this up in your example. If I’m reading page 100, I often have to think back to what happened in page 70 in order to be able to understand what’s happening in page 100, and that’s easier to do, I think. At least it feels more natural with a physical book because it’s on a different page.

So I can think about it in a way that actually takes me back to a different place in a different time. And what we found is that actually there’s a little burst of activity and a pattern of activity in the hippocampus that tells us that people are mentally time traveling back at these points where you can make a connection between the current part of a story and a previous part of the story.

Brett McKay: That’s really interesting.

Charan Raghunath: And so I think that act of being able to link things together and build them into a bigger narrative is just mentally easier with a physical book.

Brett McKay: Okay. So if you feel like your brains kind of like, “I’m not remembering as much,” few things you can do there. Don’t blast your prefrontal cortex as much. Maybe turn off the fire hose of social media. Don’t tasks switch so much? Take care of your prefrontal cortex. Sleep, reduce stress, eat right. That can help out a lot.

I thought it was really interesting. You have this chapter about the role that imagination plays in memory. What’s the connection between the two?

Charan Raghunath: So, I loved writing this chapter. It was just so much fun because it allowed me. One of the things about writing this book that was so much fun is I got to take a beginner’s mind and start to look at things that I’d seen and different things that I had read and put it together in a new way. And so there’s a very old idea going back to a researcher named Bartlett in 1930, where he argued that we don’t replay the past, but we really create what he called an imaginative construction. And by that, he means that we don’t play the past. We actually imagine how the past could have been. It’s like, instead of replaying it, we stage a play in our mind of how it could have gone out.

And so we do get some details, but then we use imagination to fill in the blanks and add meaning to our past. And likewise, he suggested this. And then, in neuroscience, this idea really took off about 15 years ago, that we actually use memory to supplement imagination. That is, when we imagine things, they’re not coming out of thin air. They’re based on this combination of all these semantic knowledge that we have and then all these little episodic memories, these random bits of experience that we’ve had at different moments in our life that allow us to anticipate and imagine things that have never happened before. And it’s sort of the root of creativity.

Brett McKay: So this raises an interesting question. If memory is us just imagining how things might have gone, how do we know if what we’re remembering actually happened, that we’re not just imagining it?

Charan Raghunath: This is one of the coolest things about science, when somebody comes up with a problem that nobody had previously realized was a problem. And so my old advisor, Marcia Johnson, just came out with this as a young researcher in the seventies. She just said, “How do we tell the difference between imagination and things that we’ve actually experienced, because it’s all in our heads. A memory for something that happened and a memory for something we just thought about are both just mental experiences.”

And so the way that we have to do it is, again, surprise. You have to use your prefrontal cortex to do a little bit of extra detective work. And so what that involves is saying, “Okay, when I remember this thing, what are the bits and pieces that are coming to mind? Are they things that I can see or are they things that I can hear? Or something that gives me some grounding in that past event? Or is it just stuff that I thought about?” So, I don’t know about you, but for me, I have these issues where I ask myself, did I send that email? Or did I just think about sending the email? Did I take my medicine today? Or did I just think about it and then get distracted?

And I have to actually ask myself, okay, can I feel myself pushing the send button? Can I visualize myself or can I taste like putting the medicine in my mouth and drinking the water? And if so, do I bring back a sense of today versus some other day? And so those kinds of sensory experiences ground us in things that we’ve actually experienced in the real world, but the information that we think about could very easily be imagined.

Brett McKay: And then also, whenever we’re doing that imagining memory thing going on, like, other stuff might mix in as we’re trying to recall a memory of our childhood, there might be something that we picked up, like we read a book or something or we saw a movie, and we unintentionally spliced that into the childhood memory, and it might turn into something that it actually… That’s not how it happened.

Charan Raghunath: Yeah. And often, I mean, we need this because it’s this less is more principle that we’re using schemas as the scaffold for our episodic memories so we don’t have to keep rebuilding our memories from scratch. If I went to a cafe every Monday and met up with a different friend, if I formed a blank memory of that every time, I would be wasting enormous amounts of resources when instead, I could just take all my knowledge about what generally happens in cafes and then tack onto that the specific details of what I did this week versus what I did last week.

Now, the problem is that our schemas allow us to fill in those blanks, but sometimes we fill them in incorrectly. And then what’s worse is when we recall those events and we fill in the blanks incorrectly. Now, that new information can creep into our old memory because the memories get transformed every time we recall them. And so that’s why often people’s, when they tell the story of something that happened in their childhood over and over and over again, or your parents probably do this, what happens is that they get more and more of these little errors that start accumulating.

Brett McKay: Does this idea explain why sometimes people confess to crimes they didn’t commit?

Charan Raghunath: Yes, because what you can typically do in these interrogation situations, and there’s actually manuals that… There’s a manual called The Read Manual that talks about an interrogation method, which relies on this, where what they do is they ask a person to… So, first of all, you start off with somebody who’s an authority figure, like a police person. You put the defendant under stress, and then you give them some misinformation, like somebody else has ratted you out. We already know that you did this. So now there’s a little bit of a seed of doubt planted in the person’s mind, and they’re stressed out, so they’re not applying this kind of critical thinking that the prefrontal cortex would normally let them do.

And then you ask them, “Okay, well, if you don’t remember, just imagine how it could have played out.” And so now they think about it, and if they have a vivid imagination, they might actually be able to come up with a very vivid mental picture of how the crime could have played out. And the next day you ask them, and now they remember something, but they don’t remember what happened. They remember what they imagined. And so if you do this across multiple days while a person is stressed out, sleep deprived, in case of it’s some interrogation of somebody abroad, like what the CIA does with their enhanced interrogation tactics, maybe they’re being tortured. And so as a result of all this, people can develop quite a rich false memory for things that never happened.

And this has been simulated in the lab by Julia Shaw and Elizabeth Loftus, and this has been shown to happen in real life.

Brett McKay: Okay, so memory can be squidgy because our imagination plays a role in recalling memory. Here’s another thing I’ve noticed in my life, and it goes to the squidginess of memory. Sometimes you’re talking to a friend, and you’d be talking about when you were in high school or in college, and you say something like, “Oh, yeah, I remember you were really for the war in Iraq. And I remember how adamant you were.” And the person, your friend says, “Actually, no, I wasn’t I mean, I might have said some things, but I actually wasn’t.” You’re like, “No. You seem pretty adamant about that at the time.” Do we sometimes change our memories in order to match how we see ourselves today? So maybe we thought something in the past, but then our politics has changed or our beliefs have changed, but we update the way we remember things so that it matches how we think of ourselves today. Does that make sense, what I’m asking?

Charan Raghunath: Absolutely. And the answer is yes. So our ability to recall anything in a given moment is based on who we are and how we feel and our mental context at a given moment. So just as if you hear the right song or if you’re in the right place, you can access a memory for a particular moment that matched up with that. It can kind of send you back in time. Likewise, when we’re searching for information, the goals that we have and the beliefs that we carry with us affect what we can pull out and what we can’t.

So it can be something like more unconscious. So, for instance, it could be something along the lines of you’re having a fight with your partner, and so now all of a sudden, you pull up all these things recently that they did to piss you off, and it’s just so easy to come up with them. Then you make up, and then a week later, you can’t remember what you even thought about, let alone all those other memories that popped up.

  And so what changed was your mental context, this emotion, this intense emotion that you felt. And this also works for beliefs, too. So we have certain beliefs, and we tend to find memories that are consistent with our beliefs. If my belief is the past used to be great, and I was so cool when I was in high school, then I’ll remember all these great things that happened in high school, but I won’t remember all the negative things that happened in high school.

And then finally, we view the world through a particular perspective, and so we can actually access other information. We change this perspective. So, for instance, two people who are members of different political parties might watch the same presidential debate and come away with memories of completely different experiences of who won and who lost based on little one liners and so forth and the talking points that they selectively remember.

But people can switch perspectives and, say, well, what if I was instead of being a Republican? What if I was a Democrat or vice versa? They can start to pull up these exceptions that they might have normally missed. Just like you can probably pull up information about the positive aspects of your relationship with your partner when you’re not fighting with them.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s interesting. So how do you manage that? Are there any tips on how to make sure you’re remembering things correctly and you’re not messing things up just so it updates and matches your current state?

Charan Raghunath: Yes. I think one factor to keep in mind is just, first of all, how much you’re going to search for information in memory that confirms your beliefs. So on average, people tend to think of them, recall memories that are more positive and that make themselves look better than they really were. So if I recall some experience from some time in my life, I might actually think of it, think of an experience that’s going to be more positive, but I’ll also remember myself in a way that’s maybe been more of a positive role than it actually transpired.

So being aware of these biases, I think, is the first step. Another step is allowing ourselves the time to think critically. And again, what often happens is we’re under stress. You shut down the prefrontal cortex, you move on to the next thing very quickly, and it makes us very susceptible to misinformation. It makes us very susceptible to manipulation. But likewise, I think one thing we can do to help ourselves is surround ourselves by diverse perspectives and give ourselves a chance to remember things from other perspectives and think that maybe the way I see the world now is just one view of how the world could be.

Brett McKay: What’s one thing that people can start doing today to get more out of their memory?

Charan Raghunath: Oh, so much. What I would say is, probably the one thing that I would say is be comfortable with discomfort. And what I mean by that, and I don’t mean like that necessarily. Be a man. Man up. I know we’re in the Art of Manliness, but what I do mean is that I think we often assume that memory should be effortless. Things should just easily come to mind, and we should be able to memorize things easily.

And you look at the kid who gets straight A’s and you’re like, “Oh, that person’s smart. That person’s doing great in school.” But really the person who’s getting straight A’s is not learning. In theory, if you’re learning, it means that you’re actually struggling and you’re failing to recall things sometimes, and that you can get the most learning by pushing yourself and exposing the weaknesses in your memory so that you can then capture those weaknesses and fix them.

Likewise, if you want to be more creative, you need to expose yourself to sources of memories that are very idiosyncratic and weird. If you just kind of expose yourself to gobs and gobs of the same media, whether it’s reading material or music or people who you interact with, and they’re all from the same demographic group, same culture, same beliefs, you might as well be ChatGPT. You’re not going to be that creative or interesting. And if you want to be accurate and you don’t want to be remembering things in a way that’s basically making you susceptible for manipulation, you need to surround yourself with sources of information and people who have different beliefs, again, so that you can really constantly challenge yourself to challenge your view of how the past transpired.

And all of those things can be uncomfortable, but they can also be sources of curiosity. And curiosity is a major driver of learning and has enormous effects on the brain, as we’ve shown in our lab.

Brett McKay: Well, Charan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Charan Raghunath: Well, you can definitely read my book Why We Remember. You can also go to my website,, to get on our mailing list for more information. And you can find me on Instagram, where we post periodically, including some tips about memory from time to time. And that’s @thememorydoc.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Charan Ranganath, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Charan Raghunath: Thanks for having me, Brett. This has been fun.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Charan Ranganath. He’s the author of the book Why We Remember. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, sign up for a newsletter. We got a daily and a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AOM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you not to only listen to AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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