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Review of "The Seven Sins of Memory"

By Daniel L. Schacter
Houghton Mifflin, 2001
Review by James R. Beebe, Ph.D. on May 21st 2002
The Seven Sins of Memory

In this well-written book, Daniel Schacter, chairman of Harvard’s Psychology Department, provides the non-specialist reader with a guided tour of the latest research on memory. He offers a fascinating glimpse into how human memory works and how it sometimes fails us.

The Seven Sins of Memory is popular science writing at its best. It is deeply interesting and entertaining without sacrificing substance. And it delivers a wealth of information without demanding too much of its readers.

As the title suggests, the book is organized into seven parts—each dealing with a specific memory problem. The seven sins are transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The first three are sins of omission: a desired memory is not accessible. The last four are sins of commission: a memory is present but it is either incorrect or unwanted. Transience refers to the weakening or loss of memory over time. Absent-mindedness occurs when some desired information does not get registered in memory because our attention is focused on something else besides what we need to remember. Our minds commit the third sin of memory, blocking, when our attempts to retrieve stored information are thwarted in some way. I’m sure we are all familiar with the embarrassing and frustrating experience of blocking on an acquaintance’s name at a party. Misattribution occurs when we assign a memory to the wrong source or unconsciously blend two or more partial memories into one. The most disturbing sin is suggestibility, which refers to having memories implanted in us because of leading questions or suggestions offered when we are trying to recall a past experience. Bias reflects the mind’s tendency to edit our previous experiences in light of our current beliefs and values. Persistence is the repeated recall of unpleasant or traumatic information or events that we wish we could forget.

Schacter combines reports of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience with humorous and thought-provoking anecdotes of famous celebrities and political figures struggling with the seven sins of memory. For example, he discusses Bill Clinton’s apparent inability to remember important details of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the inaccuracy of people’s memories regarding where they were and how they felt when they first learned about the O. J. Simpson verdict. Schacter does more than use these stories as entertaining filler or as illustrations of obvious points about absent-mindedness or memory loss. He uses them as case studies to illustrate important kinds of explanations of human memory. The only things more interesting than the stories themselves are Schacter’s analyses of them.

Schacter is more than a good storyteller—and he definitely is that. Schacter provides the interested layperson or scholar outside of this field with an informative overview of the science of human memory. For those interested in digging deeper into the issues raised in The Seven Sins of Memory, Schacter also gives a wealth of references, including a hefty 28-page bibliography.

Readers of this book will find themselves comforted at times and disturbed at others. Seeing just how prone all people are to the seven sins of memory can make you feel better about all those times you’ve misplaced your keys or forgotten a coworker’s name. One of the themes of Schacter’s book could be summed up as “Do you forget or misremember things? Welcome to the human race.” However, there is also a dark side to the errors of human memory—particularly with the sins of misattribution and suggestibility. Schacter raises serious doubts about certain therapeutic techniques that supposedly help adults to “remember” past incidents of sexual abuse and trauma that may have never happened. The mind’s susceptibility to the power of suggestion has potentially devastating consequences for our society. I was glad to see evidence that Schacter and other memory researchers realize the important social and political ramifications of their research and have become active in campaigning for improved witness interrogation techniques that significantly reduce the effects of suggestibility.

My only criticism of the book concerns the way the book is presented on the book jacket and in the introduction. The dust jacket calls The Seven Sins of Memory a “seminal book” and “a groundbreaking work.” But works of popular science are by definition not seminal, and they are not groundbreaking. They cover ground that has already been broken and ploughed in other important scholarly publications. Even Schacter falls prey to the temptations of salesmanship in the introduction when he overplays the importance of organizing his book into “seven sins.” He claims that the theme of “seven sins” provides a “fresh approach to understanding the causes and consequences of memory’s imperfections” and a “unified framework” that “concepualize[s] the various ways in which memory sometimes leads us astray.” The “seven sins” motif is nothing more than a nice way to organize an interesting book of popular science. There is really no need to overplay its significance. The quality of this book should speak for itself.

Those interested in learning more about recent research on memory should consult Memory, Brain and Belief (Harvard University Press, 2000), edited by Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry. This interdisciplinary anthology bring together contributions from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, literature and medicine in an interesting survey of the cutting edge of memory research.


© 2002 James Beebe


James R. Beebe, Instructor, Department of Philosophy, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

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