THE BLOG
10/25/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Our Fallible Memory: It's a Feature, Not a Bug

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

The other day, I couldn't find the carrots in the supermarket. I looked along the row they were always in, over and over again. And again and again. No carrots anywhere. When I asked, I found they were no more than two or three places along from their accustomed place. How could I have missed them, when I was looking so hard, and they were there, in all their orange splendor, in perfectly plain sight?

But we've all done this. Been unable to see something that's staring us in the face. Wondered how we could possibly have missed it, the first 10 or 12 times we looked there.

We don't see the world.

Because there's too much data in the world, and I'm not just talking about facts and numbers. I'm talking about every feature of every object in your environment; I'm talking about the temperature of the air and the color of the light and the feel of the floor beneath your feet and the slight ache in your shoulder and the sounds of the computer hum and a distant siren and the computer keys clacking under your fingers. I'm talking about all the possible information you could perceive.

If we paid equal attention to all of that information, we would be paralyzed by the flood, by the sheer scale of the processing needed. If we paid equal attention to all of that information, we wouldn't have time to get out of the way of the charging mammoth, to realize that woman is signaling her interest before some other quicker competitor walks off with her, to deal with the baby's unhappiness before it wakes the whole tribe and alerts nocturnal predators.

We're smarter than that. We use pre-programmed templates to speed up processing; we focus on what matters. We look for change. We look for the 'big picture.'

As the saying goes: It's not a bug, it's a feature.

This is where memory begins, with our selection of data.

But this is only the first step. Dr Loftus asks the question, how does an eyewitness go from picking out "the closest" photo from a photo line-up, to later declaring absolute certainty that the one she picked was her attacker?

We all have stories about ourselves and others that we have told again and again through our lives. We all know stories that family and friends tell, over and over. We all know how they change, how they become 'better' stories -- practice, and audience feedback, knocks the corners off, emphasizing some bits, losing other bits, 'spinning' the tale into something more coherent, more focused, and more entertaining.

'Storifying' goes deeper than this. For here's the liberating and scary magic of memory: We not only create our memories, but every time we remember them, we bring them back into that same mental space, where they become malleable once again. Which means we can (and do) re-work them.

Every time we remember a memory, we change it a little.

Many people find this terrifying. If you can't rely on your memories, where does that leave you? Your foundation rock turns out to be sand.

But, again, it's a feature not a bug.

I've seen it in family members, I know just how terrible it is. But Alzheimer's takes away all dignity, takes away the ability to communicate, takes away the ability to function in the world. Why do we focus only on one loss: memory? -- Dr. Fiona McPherson

The malleability of memory is what allows us to continue to learn, enables us to change our minds, change our selves. Makes us human.

Everything has its price.

To acknowledge that memory is fallible, that even our most precious memories don't reflect THE truth of the event, that even without realizing it our memories of events change as we acquire new information and become different people, is to give ourselves and others permission to change.

Alzheimer's disease is the fear of our age. Of course it's a terrible disease; I've seen it in family members, I know just how terrible it is. But Alzheimer's takes away all dignity, takes away the ability to communicate, takes away the ability to function in the world. Why do we focus only on one loss: memory?

Because memory is so precious to us.

Why, in this time of frantic change and personal re-invention, has memory become so precious to us? The question holds the answer.

The fallibility and malleability of memory has been responsible for many tragedies, from unjust executions to family feuds. But let's put the blame squarely where it lies -- not in these vital characteristics of the human mind, but in our excessive (grossly misunderstood) faith in human memory.

We're not machines. We're smarter than that. It's time we understood that.

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