Memory Is Just Like Telephone Game

Essays > Science, IT, Nature

As a child, my friends and I used to love playing the telephone game.

We’d sit in a circle and one of us would whisper a phrase into the next child’s ear, and that child would turn to the next and whisper whatever phrase he/she would remember until the last person in line would speak it out loud. And usually the message had changed meaning completely!


Turns out our memory is a lot like the telephone game. According to a new Northwestern Medicine study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, our memory is quite similar to the telephone game. The study shows, “Every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time.”

Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the paper said, “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event – it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”

The findings have also implications for witnesses giving testimony in criminal trials, Ms Bridge noted. “Maybe a witness remembers something fairly accurately the first time because his memories aren’t that distorted,” she said. “After that it keeps going downhill.”

She further explained that the reason for the distortion is the fact that human memories are always adapting. “Memories are not static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”

I find this study of extreme importance and it ought to be distributed widely. The findings certainly can put an end to all those tedious arguments about “I’ve explained the exact order of events before,” and “I told you exactly how this happened,” or “I absolutely remember clearly that….”

Next time you are urged to recall a certain event exactly, just say, “I can’t remember.” That might tempt people to think your brain is feeble but who cares if you have this study to back you up!


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