There are some memories we just want to hold onto for as long as possible. Maybe it’s a childhood home, a loved one, or the way someone looked at you and smiled across the room. You may be tempted to try to replay these memories over and over in your mind as a way of crystalizing them, but the newest research explains that it’s actually doing the opposite!
A recent publication in the Nature Communications journal should have you reassessing how many times you try to recall those important memories. Generally, memories of particular events fade over time, but we now know that the actual memory changes when we try to recall it later.
Memories begin to lose out on important details the more we try to bring them back to the forefront of our minds. It’s an effort by the brain to simplify what the most important part of the memory was based on what meaning you took from it when it occurred. This is the inability to recall small details but you’re able to recall how you felt or what was said, for instance. This is called a semantic memory. If you attach meaning to a memory, it’s easier to recall—but will fade quicker.
What makes memories harder to recall over time is that if you keep racking your brain trying to remember all the details, the more the brain will only focus on the semantic aspect of the memory. Most, if not all, the perceptual aspects of the memory will disappear. If you’ve ever wondered why you’re more likely to remember something routine but your favorite memories seem to get hazier over time, you can use this knowledge to help you preserve those really important memories.
By recalling them more infrequently, you’ll be able to keep them fresh. Like the most beloved photographs, memories will last longer if they’re kept on a shelf and brought out for times when you can truly appreciate them.
Lifanov, J., Linde-Domingo, J. & Wimber, M. Feature-specific reaction times reveal a semanticisation of memories over time and with repeated remembering. Nat Commun 12, 3177 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23288-5