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4 Things Most People Get Wrong About Memory

Human memory has been shown again and again to be far from perfect. We overlook big things, forget details, conflate events. One famous experiment even demonstrated that many people asked to watch a video of people playing basketball failed to notice a person wearing a gorilla suit walk right through the middle of the scene.

So why does eyewitness testimony continue to hold water in courtrooms? A new nationwide survey of 1,500 U.S. adults shows that many people continue to have the wrong idea about how we remember—and what we forget.

Here are four common incorrect assumptions about memory, held by some of the survey subjects, that experts say should be forgotten:

1. Memory works like a video camera, recording the world around us onto a mental tape that we can later replay.

Nearly two thirds (63 percent) of those in the random telephone survey said that they agreed with this model of a passively recorded memory. This notion runs counter to research that has shown events to be recalled based on "goals and expectations," the researchers behind the survey wrote in a new paper, published online August 3 in PLoS ONE. It also "contradicts the well-established idea that memory retrieval is a constructive process," too, which can be shaped by assumptions and beliefs, noted Daniel Simons, of University of Illinois, and his co-author, Christopher Chabris, of Union College, both of whom are psychology professors.

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