Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Do you remember when....

Do you use your memory in work? Stupid question, of course you do. But then ask the question, how important is your memory to your work and it gets a bit more complicated.

A popular view of memory is that it is a bit like a computer. Once recorded the data is stored away for safe keeping until we need to recall it based on some cue or search criteria. The facts or data do not change.

Unfortunately, it's not this simple. Neuroscience has shown that when we remember, we are reconstructing the fact or event from memory traces located in different parts of the brain. This raises questions of reliability.

This reconstruction can build the memories differently each time. We could be influenced by new information we have learned since the event occured or a change in our own personal circumstances. If I got laid off tomorrow it might affect how I recall my boss in a few years time. Hence our memories of events or people can change over time. We can suppress parts of a memory (how nice my boss was) or alter a memory to help our self-esteem ( I was laid off because he was afraid I would show him up).

The upshot is that the version of the past which we recall from memory can have gaps and be inconsistent. In this gap there is room for what psychologists call 'False Memories’, where people for any number of reasons create false memories of events or recall events which in reality never occurred in the first place.

This has been the subject of various studies and is particularly well researched by Elizabeth F. Loftus. According to the Innocence Project, false confessions occurred in 24 percent of the 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence in the US.

Outside of an eye witness/confessional or court room setting, this is also relevant to the work place. We all recall projects where something went well or didn't, who was to blame, what the sequence of events were etc.

However we may need to treat these memories with a degree of caution. Any number of factors could be affecting our reconstruction and recall of events. It shines a light on the value of using memory aids, from the simple note pad to more formal documentation procedures. We need an accurate record of events as they occurred that does not rely on memory.

If you find yourself being asked to trust a colleagues memory of what happened, try to get some supporting evidence, from another colleague or from some documented source. If you are working on a project now, which you know you will be asked to recall details of at a future date, keep verifiable written records. This all sounds a bit basic, but it is tempting to take short cuts and assume that when the time comes we can just rely on our memory.

Getting back to the original question, your memory is something you use all the time in work, but the importance and confidence we attach to it needs to be countered by appreciating how it works, the subjective nature of memory reconstruction and the possibility of  false memories. Memories are personal, not perfect, remember that.

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