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When I'm 64...I'll Commit at Least Seven Sins

AndyGilatsNEW.bmpFrom Andy Gilats, LearningLife director
Have you ever noticed that numbers seem to dominate the titles of great books? We all remember A Tale of Two Cities, Slaughterhouse 5, Catch-22, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. And of course, we can't forget The Three Musketeers, The 39 Steps, or The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins!

With all due respect to Mr. Dickens and Dr. Seuss, I believe that seven is the most storied, and frankly, the most feared, of all famous numbers, even if you throw in heavy-weights like Twelve Steps, Nine Lives, or Five Tips to Lose Stomach Fat, which was the first result I got when I googled "famous numbers."

Why seven? How about the Seven Days of the Week? Or more to the point, how about the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth. I cannot tell a lie, so here I must admit that by the time I was 30, I was guilty as charged on all seven counts. In fact, just last night I was listening to John Fogerty singing a song called "Heaven's Just a Sin Away." If all it takes is just one, a whole bunch of us are in real trouble.

Thankfully, that's just the silly half of the story. The worthy half is beautifully discussed in psychologist Daniel Schacter's book, The Seven Sins of Memory. I love the way he uses a "sinful" number to help us make sense of something that has multiple components, namely how our minds forget and remember.

I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but by the time most of us reach adulthood, we have probably committed all seven sins of memory (even if we don't remember doing so). Do you want to make up your own mind? Here are the seven:

Sins of Omission
These occur when "we fail to bring to mind a desired fact, event, or idea."

1. Transience. "A weakening or loss of memory over time." We can remember what we ate for lunch today, but it if we go back a week, a month, or a year, the chances of forgetting increase substantially. The good news is that transience is a basic feature of memory, not a flaw.

2. Absent-Mindedness. "A breakdown at the interface between attention and memory." Forgetting where we put our keys or our reading glasses, and even forgetting an appointment, are sins of distraction. They happen when we are focused on other, more immediate, matters. We haven't really forgotten where we put our keys: we just never committed that place to memory when we put the keys down.

3. Blocking. "A thwarted search for information that we may be desperately trying to retrieve." We see someone who is familiar to us, and strain as we might, we just can't remember that person's name. This isn't inattention or forgetting - it's actually postponing, as we find out when we unexpectedly retrieve the blocked name hours or days later.

Sins of Commission
These occur when "some form of memory is present, but it is either incorrect or unwanted."

4. Misattribution. "Assigning a memory to the wrong source." This sin has two forms. One is that we "remember" something that either didn't happen in the way we think or didn't happen at all. Dr. Schacter calls that "mistaking fantasy for reality." The other is that we incorrectly "remember" where we read or heard something, where we met someone, or where we were at a certain time. In both forms, our memory is innocently incorrect: we're not deliberately manufacturing a "memory."

5. Suggestibility. "Memories that are implanted as a result of leading questions, comments, or suggestions made when a person is trying to call up a past experience." As you can imagine, both misattribution and suggestibility can have "profound implications in legal settings."

6. Bias. "The powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we remember our pasts." Whether consciously or unconsciously, we tend to edit or rewrite past experiences by applying our current "selves" to them. A skewed recollection of an event or period in our lives often says more about how we feel now than about what happened then.

7. Persistence. "Repeated recall of disturbing information or events that we would prefer to banish from our minds altogether." Persistence occurs when a regrettable incident or statement keeps us awake at night or when we have trouble letting go of something that we wish we could take back. To this, I would add memories that are so painful that we may wish to avoid them, but that we don't really want to forget, such as details about loved ones we've lost.

Frustrating? Yes. Evil? No. Inconvenient? Yes. Demented? No.

According to Dr. Schacter, the seven "sins" are just by-products and exaggerations of desirable and adaptive features of the human mind. And the same goes for the Seven Deadly Sins, since they, too, are just exaggerations of traits that in natural moderation are useful and necessary for survival.

So when we forget where we put our keys, it may be because something more urgent grabbed our attention at that moment: our pooch pooped on the rug or the phone rang. When we forget someone's name, we mean no disrespect: it will come to us or it won't. And even when we notice that our memories don't seem as sharp, we haven't suffered a loss, only a trade-off as we gradually embrace other forms of cognition that may be more useful now.

Dr. Schacter recommends that to keep our memories in shape, we should think, talk, or write about our experiences. That "not only helps make sense of the past, but also changes the likelihood of subsequent remembering. Those episodes and incidents we discuss and rehearse are protected, at least partially, from transience; those that we don't ponder or mention tend to fade more quickly."

There you have it. Now that we have numbered our sins, let's atone by making as many memorable memories as we can! As a friend said at her 40-year college reunion, "I've got so many great memories of this place - if only I could remember what they were!"

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