Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Have I Told You This?

I've been told that I have a tendency to repeat stories. I've been told that several times, usually with the implication that I'm starting to "lose it". Finally, in today's New York Times there's an article that proves I'm normal.

According to "Story? Unforgettable. The Audience? Often Not.", researchers have demonstrated that there's a difference between "source memory" (a memory of where you learned certain facts) and "destination memory" (the memory of the person you told a fact to). The story talks about a study done by two Ontario psychologists. They took a group of college students and gave them a list of 50 facts. Half of the students were told to read the list quietly to themselves and were shown a picture of a celebrity immediately afterward. The other test subjects were told to pretend that they were "telling" the facts to a picture of a celebrity. All of the subjects were then tested to see if they could remember which celebrity-fact pairs they were given. Students had significantly worse memories for the celebrities they were "talking" to than for the celebrity they were "learning" from.

The psychologists say this is normal, because when someone tells a personal story they are self-involved in the process and less able to attend to the person they are speaking to---making the audience forgettable, in a sense. This also serves an adaptive function:

"The tendency to blank on who-I-told-what may in fact reflect the workings of a healthy memory. Psychologists have found evidence that when people reset a password or a new phone number for an old friend, their brain actively suppresses the out-of-date digits. The old numbers are a competing memory, and potentially confounding."

In other words, if you spend a lot of memory power keeping track of what you've told and to whom, you're going to forget more things overall.

So there. I'm going to pass this little item along to the person who teases me about my repetitive personal anecdotes. Or maybe I've sent this to him already, I don't remember.