Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Daniel L. Schacter, the chairman of Harvard's Psych Department, is one of the world's leading experts on memory.  In this book he provides a very useful framework for thinking about and discussing the classic difficulties we all have with memory and provides valuable insight into current scientific thinking on these problems.  His overarching theory about the seven sins, that they are basically necessary byproducts of the more positive aspects of our mind's ability to remember things, is pretty much inarguable.  Unfortunately, it is also rather circular, and so doesn't much further our understanding.

It is easiest to just quote Schacter fully on the seven sins :

    I propose that memory's malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or
    "sins," which I call transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and
    persistence. Just like the ancient seven deadly sins, the memory sins occur frequently in everyday
    life and can have serious consequences for all of us.

    Transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking are sins of omission: we fail to bring to mind a
    desired fact, event, or idea. Transience refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time. It's
    probably not difficult for you to remember now what you have been doing for the past several
    hours.  But if I ask you about the same activities six weeks, six months, or six years from now,
    chances are you'll remember less and less. Transience is a basic feature of memory, and the culprit
    in many memory problems.

    Absent-mindedness involves a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory.
    Absent-minded memory errors -- misplacing keys or eyeglasses, or forgetting a lunch appointment
    -- typically occur because we are preoccupied with distracting issues or concerns, and don't focus
    attention on what we need to remember. The desired information isn't lost over time; it is either
    never registered in memory to begin with, or not sought after at the moment it is needed, because
    attention is focused elsewhere.

    The third sin, blocking, entails a thwarted search for information that we may be desperately trying
    to retrieve. We've all failed to produce a name to accompany a familiar face. This frustrating
    experience happens even though we are attending carefully to the task at hand, and even though the
    desired name has not faded from our minds -- as we become acutely aware when we unexpectedly
    retrieve the blocked name hours or days later.

    In contrast to these three sins of omission, the next four sins of misattribution, suggestibility, bias,
    and persistence are all sins of commission: some form of memory is present, but it is either
    incorrect or unwanted. The sin of misattribution involves assigning a memory to the wrong source:
    mistaking fantasy for reality, or incorrectly remembering that a friend told you a bit of trivia that
    you actually read about in a newspaper. Misattribution is far more common than most people
    realize, and has potentially profound implications in legal settings. The related sin of suggestibility
    refers to memories that are implanted as a result of leading questions, comments, or suggestions
    when a person is trying to call up a past experience. Like misattribution, suggestibility is especially
    relevant to -- and sometimes can wreak havoc within -- the legal system.

    The sin of bias reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we
    remember our pasts. We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences -- unknowingly and
    unconsciously -- in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of
    a specific incident, or even of an extended period in our lives, which says more about how we feel
    now than about what happened then.

    The seventh sin -- persistence -- entails repeated recall of disturbing information or events that we
    would prefer to banish from our minds altogether: remembering what we cannot forget, even
    though we wish that we could. Everyone is familiar with persistence to some degree: recall the last
    time that you suddenly awoke at 3:00 a.m., unable to keep out of your mind a painful blunder on
    the job or a disappointing result on an important exam. In more extreme cases of serious depression
    or traumatic experience, persistence can be disabling and even life-threatening.

That all seems quite unexceptionable, in fact, a quite helpful way of organizing the several recurrent memory problems.

Schacter argues, accurately, that these sins pale to near insignificance when measured against the really extraordinary job that the brain does in storing and retrieving our memories.  Consider just the sheer vocabulary of words and the number of proper names that each of us has stored away and it seems awfully silly to complain that we sometimes have trouble recalling someone's name immediately.  This argument is compelling.

However, I found the final section of the book, when he considers why these sins occur at all, to be weak.  Though Schacter acknowledges some of the inherent problems of evolutionary psychology, he bases much of this discussion on an evolutionary approach, treating the seven memory sins as adaptations.  Thus we get a line of reasoning that goes something like this :

    -your memory of a near-death experience in a car accident keeps recurring

    -you wish you could dismiss the memory, but can't (the sin of persistence)

    -why should it be that the pleasant memory of a family picnic fades away but this horrible memory
    won't leave you alone  ?

    -Because, the brain has adapted in such a way as to keep these kinds of memories at the forefront of
    your mind, in order that they may serve as a warning and a lesson should something similar
    happen in the future.

This seems inoffensive enough on first consideration, but it conceals a couple of major objections.  First, it is unprovable.  There is no experiment which will show it to be either true or false.  As Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, showed, the very essence of good science is that it be falsifiable.  This is not.

Second, and related to the first, it is simply too neat.  Why do I remember X ? Because my mind thinks it may be important later.  Why do I forget Y ? My mind didn't think it would be useful.  The same theory answers both the positive and the negative side of the equation which is always a danger sign.  Imagine that the theory of gravity held that rocks fall to the ground because gravity chooses to act on them, but helium balloons float up because gravity doesn't consider them important.

Third, how did my mind know ahead of time which of my memories might tend to protect me later on in life ?  And why do I recall my own car accident so graphically and so frequently, but not the safety tips I got in Driver Education class ?  It may well be that our brains are sophisticated enough to make judgments about what to retain and what to discard, but it would be nice to see some concrete evidence that such is the case.

Finally, any argument that the mind intentionally purges certain memories in order to leave room for the more important ones begs the question of why ?  Why hasn't the brain adapted in such a way that it can recall everything ?  Why treat any memory as insignificant ?  Why not store them all, in case we need them, or want them, later ?

All of these objections point up the degree to which evolutionary theory is a closed system, akin to religion, more than to science.  No theory is ever subjected to rigorous testing in a controlled environment.  Everything is the way it is because awesome forces decided that's how things should be.  Those who question the theories are not merely skeptics, they are treated as heretics.  But now, in a development which has been profoundly gratifying for those of us who generally look askance at Evolution, the internecine warfare between the sort of classical Darwinians (Stephen Jay Gould, etc.) and the Evolutionary Psychologists (Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, etc.) has exploded into charges and countercharges with both sides using these very types of arguments against each other.  Objections which were easily dismissed when they came from kooky Creationists are proving much harder to handle when they come from fellow scientists.  Even better, and vastly more entertaining, they throw things at each other and exchange charges of Nazism and sexism and racism, and all kinds of fun stuff (many of the recent battles have, for whatever reason, been fought out in the pages of the NY Review of Books).

So, Schacter's book is excellent as far as isolating and structuring these seven aspects of memory, be they sins or virtues.  And much of the discussion  is fascinating.  But the attempt to provide a general picture of why the sins may have come about in the first place is inadequate, and merely shows how much we have yet to learn about the mind.


Grade: (B)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Daniel L. Schacter home page (Harvard)
    -Cognitive Neuroscience Society
    -BOOK SITE : Seven Sins of Memory (FSB Associates)
    -REVIEW : of Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past by Daniel L. Schacter (Lucy Horowitz, Book wire)
    -REVIEW : of searching for memory :  the brain, the mind, and the past by Daniel Schacter (Bob Carroll, Skeptic's Dictionary)
    -REVIEW : of Searching for Memory (LeRoy G. Schultz, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, West Virginia University., IPT Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Seven Sins of Memory (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Seven Sins of Memory , by Daniel L. Schacter  (Mike Lepore for

    -DEFINITION : memory (Skeptic's Dictionary)
    -In a National Magazine documentary, broadcast on January 5, 1999, reporter Eve Savory asked: So what is memory? How do we lose it? Can it be improved? (CBC)
    -ESSAY : Dark thoughts : Freud may have been right: people can suppress memories (New Scientist)
    -ESSAY : What is a memory made of? (JOANNIE M. SCHROF, US News)