Author: Daniel L. Schacter
The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and has expertise in memory. This book explains the mysteries of memory, how it works and, more importantly, how it fails. The striking title is matched by the author’s engaging style. The book lucidly discusses the neuroanatomical correlates of memory and its sins, and simplifies the concept of the phonological loop, ‘…the system which orchestrates the flow of information into and out of long term memory…’ (page 29). We learn that memory is not stored as a video recording to be replayed when needed, but it is reconstructed each time we remember. This storage and retrieval process is fundamentally prone to error and may be influenced by factors like feelings and beliefs (page 9).
It is concerning that the resulting sins happen frequently in everyday life. The first sin the author discusses is that of transience (forgetting). The author discusses the different types of memory, and how we forget about 60% of what we learn within nine hours (the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve). Transience may however be mitigated by measures such as rehearsal, cues and hints. The second sin is absent-mindedness, and the implication of this sin is well-known to doctors. The author discusses the effects of divided attention and automatic behaviour on absent-mindedness, and raises the problems associated with prospective memory-how we remember to perform future actions.
The third sin, blocking, is best known as the tip of the tongue phenomenon (page 72). The book explains why we may not be able to retrieve the word we want, and why this happens more frequently with proper names. He explains the mystery of the ‘ugly sisters’, similar words that come to mind instead of the desired ones, and how these words may perpetuate the block. Most importantly he discusses ‘self-cueing strategies’ that may overcome the problem.
Most worrying of all to me is the sin of misattribution, assigning a memory to the wrong source. The author says ‘sometimes we remember events that never happened, misattributing ‘…to memories of past events that did not occur’. We also sometimes ‘…recall correctly what happened, but misattribute it to the wrong time or place’ (page 90). Memories of different events may also be merged together in the phenomenon called ‘memory binding’. The sin of suggestibility describes false memories that arise from external suggestion. This has important consequences in the criminal justice system but also has serious implications to healthcare for example when assessing allegations of abuse.
The author discusses the sin of bias in chapter 6. The hindsight bias is probably the most relevant to medicine but he also discusses other biases including the egocentric bias (we remember in such a way that we preserve our sense of self-esteem). The final sin is of persistence and the author discusses this particularly in the context of post-traumatic states.
With a very catchy title and an attractive cover, this books reviews the major flaws of memory. These flaws which the author aptly calls ‘sins’ have grave consequences and the book explores these comprehensively. I thoroughly enjoyed the book not only for the insight it gives to personal memory failures, but for highlighting the unreliability of memory in clinical practice. The book is extensively researched and gives an in-depth understanding of the working of memory. The author discusses complex issues in a way that lay readers can easily appreciate. He gives practical examples of how memory fails, and does so with a very engaging writing style.
Doctors rely on memory probably more so than many other professions. We need to consider the different fallibilities of memory anytime we take a history from our patients. Awareness of the fallibility of memory is a call to pause every time we think we remember a treatment or a procedure. The book offers redemption for these common sins and I recommend it.
Here is the author talking the seven sins-almost as good as the book!
- Publisher, place and year: Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2002
- Number of chapters: 8
- Pages: 272
- ISBN: 0-618-04019-6
- Rating. 5 stars
- Other related book by author: Searching for Memory