Like old photographs, memories fade over time

Summary: Low-level visual information fades in memory over time. However, negative emotion increases subjective memory vividness.

Source: Boston College

Like old photographs, memories fade in quality over time – a surprising finding for a team of Boston College researchers who expected recollections would become less accurate, but found people also report declines in the vibrancy and visual qualities of their memories.

When people remember the past, they remember it with varying degrees of clarity, said Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Maureen Ritchey, a cognitive neuroscientist and co-author of the study, published in an online edition of the journal Psychological Science.

Sometimes people remember lots of details about an event as if they are reliving the moment as it happened, said Ritchey. Other times, it seems like the memory has faded, and the details are fuzzy. Prior memory research has shown that emotionally significant events– like a car accident– are remembered more vividly than everyday events.

“We wanted to know whether this feeling of memory vividness is related to not just what is remembered, but how it is remembered – the visual quality of the memory,” said Ritchey, who conducted the study with Boston College Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Kensinger and post-doctoral researcher Rose Cooper.

As events are stored in memory or forgotten, the team asked, how do their visual features change? Ritchey said people reported changes to their memories akin to using a filter to edit a picture.

“A simple analogy is what happens when you post a photo on Instagram,” Ritchey said. “You’re cued to apply a filter that changes the brightness or color saturation of the image. In our study, we asked if forgetting is like applying a filter to past experience, and whether or not the emotional significance of the event would change which filter you apply.”

In three experiments, participants studied emotionally negative and neutral images that varied in visual quality — luminance and color saturation. They then reconstructed the visual qualities of each image in a subsequent test.

The findings revealed that memories were recollected as less visually vibrant than they were encoded, demonstrating a novel memory-fading effect, the researchers reported.

Negative emotions subjects experienced when viewing the images increased the likelihood that images would be accurately remembered but did not influence memory fading. In addition, subjective ratings of memory vividness were lower for less accurate memories and for memories that had visually faded, the team found.

These findings provide evidence that the vibrancy of low-level details – such as colors and shapes associated with an event — fade in memory while the gist of the experience is retained.

People may remember going to a music festival and watching their favorite band, but the intensity of that sensory experience, including the bright stage lights and strength of the bass, will slowly fade.

“We found that memories seem to literally fade: people consistently remembered visual scenes as being less vibrant than they were originally experienced,” said Cooper.

“We had expected that memories would get less accurate after a delay, but we did not expect that there would be this qualitative shift in the way that they were remembered.”

The fading effect happened less for memories that were rated as subjectively stronger. “We were also surprised to find that emotional memories did not influence the amount of fading, only the likelihood with which people remembered the images at all,” she added.

This image shows old photos of a building, fading in color contrast

Much like opaque filters we apply to pictures on social media, the vibrancy of our memories dims and fades over time, Boston College researchers report in the journal Psychological Science. The image reflects 12 levels of visual salience, or vibrancy, used to rate how memories fade. The image is credited to Psychological Science.

Cooper and Ritchey said the team’s next steps are to figure out what exactly drives the memory fading effect – does it stem from forgetting over time or interference from new information? How is it influenced by individual differences in memory for other kinds of event details?

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Boston College
Media Contacts:
Ed Hayward – Boston College
Image Source:
The image is credited to Psychological Science.

Original Research: Closed access
“Memories Fade: The Relationship Between Memory Vividness and Remembered Visual Salience” Rose A. Cooper, Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Maureen Ritchey First Published March 21, 2019 Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797619836093

Abstract

Memories Fade: The Relationship Between Memory Vividness and Remembered Visual Salience

Past events, particularly emotional experiences, are often vividly recollected. However, it remains unclear how qualitative information, such as low-level visual salience, is reconstructed and how the precision and bias of this information relate to subjective memory vividness. Here, we tested whether remembered visual salience contributes to vivid recollection. In three experiments, participants studied emotionally negative and neutral images that varied in luminance and color saturation, and they reconstructed the visual salience of each image in a subsequent test. Results revealed, unexpectedly, that memories were recollected as less visually salient than they were encoded, demonstrating a novel memory-fading effect, whereas negative emotion increased subjective memory vividness and the precision with which visual features were encoded. Finally, memory vividness tracked both the precision and remembered salience (bias) of visual information. These findings provide evidence that low-level visual information fades in memory and contributes to the experience of vivid recollection.

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