Memory Details Fade Over Time, With Only the Main Gist Preserved

Summary: While memories become less vibrant and detailed over time, the central gist of the memory is preserved.

Source: University of Birmingham

What information is retained in a memory over time, and which parts get lost? These questions have led to many scientific theories over the years, and now a team of researchers at the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham have been able to provide some answers.

Their new study, which is published today in Nature Communications, demonstrates that our memories become less vibrant and detailed over time, with only the central gist eventually preserved. Moreover, this ‘gistification’ of our memories is boosted when we frequently recall our recent experiences.

The work could have implications in a number of areas, including the nature of memories in post-traumatic stress disorder, the repeated questioning of eye-witness testimonies and even in best practice for exam studying.

While memories are not exact carbon copies of the past — remembering is understood to be a highly reconstructive process — experts have suggested that the contents of a memory could change each time we bring it back to mind.

However, exactly how our memories differ from the original experiences, and how they are transformed over time, has until now proven difficult to measure in laboratory settings.

For this study the researchers developed a simple computerised task that measures how fast people can recover certain characteristics of visual memories when prompted to do so. Participants learned word-image pairs and were later required to recollect different elements of the image when cued with the word. For example, participants were asked to indicate, as fast as possible, if the image was coloured or greyscale (a perceptual detail), or whether it showed an animate or inanimate object (a semantic element).

These tests, probing the quality of the visual memories, happened immediately after learning and also after a two-day delay. Reaction time patterns showed that participants were faster to recollect meaningful, semantic elements than surface, perceptual ones.

Julia Lifanov, lead author of the study from the University of Birmingham, said: “Many memory theories assume that over time, and as people re-tell their stories, they tend to forget the surface details but retain the meaningful, semantic content of an event.

“Imagine reminiscing about a pre-COVID dinner with a friend — you realize that you cannot recall the table d├ęcor but know exactly what you ordered; or you remember the conversation with the bartender, but not the colour of his shirt. Memory experts call this phenomenon ‘semanticization’.”

Prof Maria Wimber, senior author on the study from the University of Glasgow, said: “The pattern towards recollection of meaningful semantic elements we demonstrate in this study indicates that memories are biased towards meaningful content in the first place — and we have shown in previous studies that this bias is clearly reflected in brain signals too.

“Our memories change with time and use and that is a good and adaptive thing. We want our memories to retain the information that is most likely to be useful in the future, when we encounter similar situations.”

The researchers found that the bias towards semantic memory content becomes significantly stronger with the passage of time, and with repeated remembering. When participants came back to the lab two days later, they were much slower at answering the perceptual-detailed questions, but they show relatively preserved memory for the semantic content of the images.

This shows old photos in a box
While memories are not exact carbon copies of the past — remembering is understood to be a highly reconstructive process — experts have suggested that the contents of a memory could change each time we bring it back to mind. Image is in the public domain

However, the shift from detail-rich to more concept-based memories was far less pronounced in a group of subjects who repeatedly viewed the images, rather than being asked to actively bringing them back to mind.

The study has implications for probing the nature of memories in health and disease. It provides a tool to study maladaptive changes, for example in post-traumatic stress disorder where patients often suffer from intrusive, traumatic memories, and tend to over-generalize these experiences to novel situations. The findings are also highly relevant for understanding how eyewitness memories may be biased by frequent interviews and repeatedly recalling the same event.

The findings also demonstrate that testing yourself prior to an exam (for example, by using flashcards) will make the meaningful information stick for longer, especially when followed by periods of rest and sleep.

About this memory research news

Source: University of Birmingham
Contact: Press Office – University of Birmingham
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Feature-specific reaction times reveal a semanticisation of memories over time and with repeated remembering” by Julia Lifanov, Juan Linde-Domingo, Maria Wimber. Nature Communications


Feature-specific reaction times reveal a semanticisation of memories over time and with repeated remembering

Memories are thought to undergo an episodic-to-semantic transformation in the course of their consolidation.

We here test if repeated recall induces a similar semanticisation, and if the resulting qualitative changes in memories can be measured using simple feature-specific reaction time probes.

Participants studied associations between verbs and object images, and then repeatedly recalled the objects when cued with the verb, immediately and after a two-day delay. Reaction times during immediate recall demonstrate that conceptual features are accessed faster than perceptual features.

Consistent with a semanticisation process, this perceptual-conceptual gap significantly increases across the delay. A significantly smaller perceptual-conceptual gap is found in the delayed recall data of a control group who repeatedly studied the verb-object pairings on the first day, instead of actively recalling them.

Our findings suggest that wake recall and offline consolidation interact to transform memories over time, strengthening meaningful semantic information over perceptual detail.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.