Are Some of Our Memories Lost Forever?

Why do some experiences become memories, to be savored again and again, while others slip unnoticed into the dark recesses of our minds? It’s a question we don’t often consider as we go about our lives, and it isn’t until later, when we try to recall something, that we realize it might be completely gone.

We had this discussion last week, when my adult children came to Thanksgiving dinner, and the subject of childhood memories came up. As we compared notes, it was clear that each of us had a different ‘take’ on some events we all experienced.

In discussing my own childhood, I revealed that I remembered very little of my early years, and said how I regretted that. Sometimes, I told them, I would evoke a mere glimpse of a memory, of my siblings and my parents, and then try to remember some of the conversation, or something that might have happened. But I was never successful, I said, in getting any further.

When my siblings and I discuss past events, I told them, I’m always amazed at how our recollections differ, and how each person’s version emphasizes some things, and underplays others. I marvel at how selective those memories are, with different emotional overtones and interpretations layering what we recall.

This demonstrates to me, that memory is not a ‘thing’. Rather, it’s a term covering many types of recollections that are distinct, and unique to each person. The brain is complex, and no one really knows absolutely how memories are made. There are as many theories about this as there are scientists, but here is a short explanation:

Where do memories begin?

Experiences, like those discussed in our conversation last week, begin in our sensory system, the moment by moment events that happen. During this stage, information coming through our senses is stored for a very brief period of time, generally for no longer than a half-second for visual information and 3 or 4 seconds for auditory information. We grasp only parts of this sensory memory, allowing some of it to transfer to the next stage, short-term memory.

Sometimes called active memory, short-term memory refers to our recall of things that happened recently, the information we are currently aware of—what we are currently thinking about. It’s fleeting, lasting between 15 and 30 seconds. It holds the information we are currently working with and using for cognitive tasks. This memory, according to Freudian psychology, is the conscious mind.

Paying attention to it, anchoring it in some way, (even thinking, “I will remember this”) allows it to continue to the next stage, long-term memory.

This stage (the unconscious in Freudian psychology), refers to the continuing storage of information. This information is largely outside of our awareness but can be called into working memory to be used when needed, according to each person’s retrieval ability.

Researchers don’t all agree on the likelihood that the brain stores ALL of life’s experiences. Some scientists speculate that memories which are stored are in some way edited and sorted, and that some of the more peripheral details are never stored.

Here’s what I really want to know

But here is the real nub of my question:

Can the mind select the information, dig it out of the long-term memory bank, and refresh it anew, so that it can come forward as a memory? And is some of that old information  completely gone?

It turns out that not all long-term memories are created equal. Neuroscientists claim that information that is of greater importance leads to a stronger recall. How the memory was encoded, the patterns of neuron activity in various parts of your brain at the time of the experience, can have a bearing on whether or not it will be easily remembered.

If you were very aware and alert, when you had the experience, for example, it will be more vivid, and more likely to be remembered. That is why important events such as your graduation ceremony or the birth of your children are more clearly remembered than other less significant experiences. So it makes sense that some memories will spring to mind quickly, while others are weaker and might require prompts or reminders to help you recall them.

There’s so much new research addressing serious issues such as helping Alzheimer’s patients, healing people with PTSD, and increasing student effectiveness. My question on lost memories seems frivolous by comparison.

What do researchers say?

But before I abandon it, here are some interesting studies.

Researchers in the lab of Susumu Tonegawa at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT conducted a series of studies, concluding that those memories are still there, it’s a just a matter of finding the best way to retrieve them, which hasn’t been worked out yet.

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett says that recall of a memory is a mysterious process, in which “signals from our frontal cortex link to that memory via uncertain means, and the memory is reconstructed from the information available.” The memory hasn’t disappeared, she says, it’s just that you can’t find a way to retrieve it.

“It’s a bit like losing a glove – you still own a glove, it’s in your home somewhere, but you can’t use it.”

When writer Joe Fingas, discusses scientists using small jolts of electricity to revive recent memories (in a 2016 article in Engadget), he brings some humor to the issue.

“You can’t apply this method to long-term memories (you likely need different techniques for that), so don’t expect to revisit your childhood with a zap to your head. However, the findings should improve our understanding of how the brain works — it’s already clear that memory is more complex than we thought.”

And just like that, he (almost) answered my question.


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30 Responses to Are Some of Our Memories Lost Forever?

  1. Derrick John Knight says:

    Fascinating. Here is an additional take on discussions with siblings. I am the eldest of five born 18 years apart. It is clear that our experiences of parenting were in fact different – our parents changed and developed over time and this reflected on how the were with us.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Being the eldest gives you a special perspective, more responsibility, more pressure, but maybe more privileges. But it’s true, your parents will have changed over the years, giving the younger siblings a much different experience of childhood—and different memories!

  2. Rummuser says:

    I have not found a way to retrieve memories but events take place that trigger them off and I write blog posts on Memory Triggers. Currently the 20th is in the pipeline and very likely will see light of day tomorrow.

  3. I’m finding that I can retrieve fewer and fewer memories of my childhood, teenage years, and early marriage and career years. Even some of the 1990s are gone from my conscious grasp. But scents, music, and movies can often trigger a memory I had lost awareness of. The loss of my past is both sad and happy–many of the lost years were traumatic and difficult. Thanks for your review of some of the explanations for memory loss, different interpretations among those who were present, and so on. I recently watched the 18-hour Ken Burns documentary on The Vietnam War. Much that I had forgotten returned to vivid recall as I sat mesmerized. Those years were some of the most difficult in my life. Maybe it was best that I have trouble retrieving them!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      So much to respond to in this comment, Dr. Rin! I didn’t touch on how scents, music and movies nudge the memory, but it is so true. And, as for not welcoming some memories involving difficult times—I guess our brain knows what’s best for us!

  4. My sister and I were only 15 months apart, so my mother treated us almost as twins. And even though we were treated about the same, our memories, and even interpretations of reality at the time, were often quite different. Our brains make up stories about what is going on, and our stories don’t always agree with the stories of other people.

    Also our memories/stories of the past are subject to change:

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Good observation about the way our brains make up stories about what is happening! It’s as if they have a separate life, and aren’t really connected to us! Your comment illustrates just how subjective our memories are.

  5. Janis says:

    My husband and I remember situations and conversations differently, maybe especially when we are arguing about them. Something I find even more interesting is how we remember certain events… or not. Restaurants that we’ve eaten at, homes we’ve visited, I can recall easily while he has no memory of them. On the other hand, I’ll hear him talk about an interaction – one that I was present for – in great detail. I, on the other hand, am completely without a memory of it ever occurring.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Men and women (especially husbands and wives) should never be required to recall a mutually common experience, LOL! That’s just grist for a disagreement! I enjoyed your ‘take’ on this, Janis!

  6. Mary says:

    In reading ” Being Mortal”, a popular book, I read about the Peak-End way the brain thinks. Hope I can explain it like the book does, although this was in reference to painful medical tests, but I think it would apply to life’s ups and downs ( more so downs) as well.
    The researchers thought the memory would be a compilation of the event moment to moment and then an average assessment by the mind of the event.
    But what they discovered was the the worst moment or the ending moment formed the memory, not all the other moments. If the ending wasn’t so bad, the previous bad moments were blunted at the ending and if the ending was bad, the other previous ok moments were almost forgotten.
    Also the worse moment and I presume also the best, overrode the other opposite moments in memory.
    This helped explain to me, why I seem to remember the worse times in my marriage and not the better times, of which there were many and the last few years were not so good. So the end memories overrode the many good ones, unfortunately. But this is the way our mind works…
    I don’t know if this makes any sense, as the author explained it much better than me.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It does make sense, Mary! I think also, that when we are young, and our experiences are happier (for many of us), we tend to think we had a happy childhood, when in fact, there were unhappy events along the way. I like the idea of a’summary’ made at the end of the event. How efficient!

  7. Mary says:

    The book referenced in Being Mortal, was “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I recognize the title. It was loaned to me by a friend, but I was busy at the time, and couldn’t give it the concentration it required.

  8. Lynne Spreen says:

    I feel bad when my son will ask me something like, did I have chickenpox, Mom? I honestly don’t think so but not sure. It was 40 years and 2 divorces ago. So much water under the bridge.
    In all your research, Diane, did you come across the supposition that the reason we forget is to rest, that if we remembered everything we’d go nuts? I heard that somewhere. Maybe an urban legend.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I think it’s the mind knowing what’s best for us, and erasing parts of what would drive us crazy! And that especially goes for divorces!

  9. Clive says:

    As I grow older I’m more often frustrated by my short term memory letting me down – the ‘why did I come into this room’ type of thing. But what really throws me off balance is finding that a long-held memory of an event is incorrect, and this happens more often these days, too. It feels like a Maslow hierarchy for the memory: remove the foundations and the rest comes crashing down!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s a older person’s curse…unless you nail it down, rehearse it, the reason for your destination is lost! It makes everything take longer when you can’t remember what to came in a room to get!

  10. Hi Diane! I too find the memory a fascinating subject and did a couple of blog posts on it myself. What I found was that even though we think our memories should be stored in our minds like a photo–they are really more like a story around a moment. And how we felt at the time, who was there, what happened and all sorts of stuff are stored as a story. That’s why we all perceive things so differently. And that is also why it is so difficult to get “eye-witnesses” to remember the same thing. Which is really problematic if they are attempting to convict someone based upon the memory they have stored. It may or it may not be true. And oh yes, that book, Thinking Fast and Slow is excellent and I highly recommend it. ~Kathy

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Sure glad I don’t have to be a witness at a crime trial! I like the idea that memory is more like a story…and it might impact the memory if you are a visual as opposed to an aural person. In that case, a photo might be more significant.

  11. joared says:

    My earliest memory when I was about three years is one of smell — a darkened house interior where a deceased unimbalmed family member was lying as was the custom in those years — which I learned years later as an adult when I described my smell and faint visual recollections to my mother.

    Brain function and memory are fascinating with so much yet to be learned. By the time we process experiences through our own perceptions, that have been influenced by our own unique lives, it’s not surprising that we might recall them differently from one another. Yet, individuals often expend significant amounts of energy disagreeing with one another about the experience rather than considering that could be the other persons’s honest perception.

    Highly emotional experiences to the individual are more likely to be remembered. Stimulation of different senses can sometimes access memories not recalled otherwise, especially for some people. One such example would be individuals recalling others only when seeing their actual face as can occur in some stages of Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.

    I’ve been intrigued by a couple people in my life who internalized significant events that actually happened to me — one who was present, only observing the event, but years later described themself as having performed the action I had taken — the other who only knew stories I had told them about numerous situations, but years later described themself as having been present, though in fact was not there and has never even met any of the other people involved.

    The former was beginning to exhibit some other misperceptions, other behaviors, including difficulty concentrating, that in retrospect — when considered cumulatively — has led me to consider these possible memory issue behaviors may have been the beginning of mental decline. The person subsequently died suddenly in their sleep, presumably due to natural causes, ending any further observations.

    The other person has throughout life had a proclivity toward relating tales as truth which they seem to really believe — nothing malicious, but mostly revolving around social relationships with other people. I only learned that fact in later years. The brain can be mysterious in its own way.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I can’t imagine having an early memory of an unimbalmed body…how confusing for a young child. In our sterilized environments all that is lost, along with some better memories! Your observations about memory and the mystery of brain function made me want to revisit this topic, Joared.

      • joared says:

        Actually, I never felt confused in anyway that I recall from the experience with that deceased relative I had never even met as confusing. I don’t recall if I asked questions, or what my mother said to me, but am sure it would have been a very matter of fact age appropriate explanation. I just recall a heavy unusual smell and the dark house interior. Whatever our age any discussion of death in my family was just an accepted expected logical progression in life we would experience, too, just as all the living creatures and pets we had throughout my life eventually died, also. We felt sad, death may have come too soon, or in an undesirable manner, but was inevitable.

        • Still the Lucky Few says:

          Your family’s treatment of the subject of death was matter of fact, and healthy. You were fortunate, since such a realistic approach was unusual in Western cultures. For many of us, death was (and still is) a mysterious, and taboo subject, best avoided. Thanks, Joared, for your contribution.

  12. Irene says:

    Diane, this is a very interesting post. In answer to your question – yes I definitely believe that memories can be retrieved and refreshed anew. And yes I think memories can be lost. I am keeping my comment brief but this is a subject that fascinates me and one I looked into as a memoir writer. I know you read this post when I posted it but you may be interested in revisiting it.
    There is a lot of work being done on memory and much of what used to be believed is being found to be possibly not quite the way it happens. What is apparent is that memories are made fresh each time they are remembered. As storytelling is the way we gain our identity so too is storytelling important in memory. Our autobiographical memory is set down in the same place as visual memory and this can make it difficult to distinguish at times between things that have happened and things that you can visualise clearly. We also fill any gaps in the memory fragments with story – making the memory make sense. To any memory we bring our own experiences, and biases. Time will also have an effect on memory. There was a slave narrative (I can’t remember the man’s name off the top of my head) but he wrote the same autobiography at various points in his life and his memory and subsequent identity was different in each. Fascinating. I think about my own memories and know there are ones that with time I am happy not to be able to recall.
    Sadly we do lose memory when dementia sets in and even when dementia is not an issue, age doesn’t make it easy. With dementia we lose our memory and with the loss of our story we lose our identity.
    Sorry for being so long winded Diane. Fascinating subject. Thanks for raising it.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I recall this post, and I did revisit it. Your thesis that memories are made fresh every time they are remembered confirms the idea that memory is not static, (or a solid thing).Time, new experiences, and fresh biases bring a new slant on each memory, and actually change it. This is something we don’t want to acknowledge, if we truly value a fond memory! Of course, this is another theory, and not scientifically proven, if that is even possible when studying the brain!

  13. what annoys me from time to time – is the memory associated with trivia – things that aren’t mean to be recalled, but they pop up when you least expect – usually when you’ve not really “thinking/musing”

    this whole blog post has me thinking about bits – that have nothing much to do with anything…at all!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It seems that the brain just has to be busy, hence all of these ‘popups’…good name for them, Cathy!

  14. Maddy says:

    The brain, and the memory in particular is so interesting – in my next life I am gonna be a neurologist. I’m contemplating the difference between recall of events and the memory for random facts. Why do we remember useless trivia and sometimes forget a name or location that is important for us to remember? With the barrage of information that we get via media each day, we must filter out a lot of it.
    Be careful about other people remembering that you weren’t there when you know you were. This could be “gas-lighting”, a method of making you doubt your own sanity . . .

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Gaslighting, is defined as a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth…easy to see how it can be used by people who want to gain advantage. So much we have to learn about the brain!

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