Thursday, January 20

The details of memory fade with time

The details of memory fade with time

The details of memory fade with time

Scientists from the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham have found that memories lose strength in terms of level of detail over time: we choose to remember the most significant and essential contents, leaving other more anecdotal and superficial elements in the way. In addition, each time we remember the brain shapes the content and adapts it to each new need or situation.

Memory always seems to be selective, not only with respect to what we choose to remember or not but also in relation to the content of what is remembered.

According to a Press release, a study published in the journal Nature Communications shows that as time passes each memory is «summarized» in the mind: visual, perceptual or sensory aspects are left aside and only the semantic knot is preserved, the central meaning of each experience.

After conducting different tests with a group of volunteers, the British researchers found that by offering the possibility of relating different words and images and then trying to remember those associations in the shortest possible time, the participants tended to remember only the essentials of each graph.

The more time elapsed since the first contact with the association to remember, the greater was the tendency to preserve only the most significant in terms of concept or meaning, in turn disdaining perceptual details.

For example, participants remembered the objects included in each image, but not their color. The process seems to become even more acute with the reiteration of the memories.

The essential memory

According to specialists, this is part of the so-called essential memory: it is the process by which we tend to remember the substance of the evoked beyond the details. The brain makes symbolic representations directly related to the initial stimulus related to the memory, with the basal element that builds the meaning of what is remembered.

Maybe as a way to save storage resources, the memory stays (especially with the passage of time) with the substantial and eliminates the superficial. But this process is not static, but clearly dynamic: some memories are privileged according to the specific needs of each situation.

In this way, the memory mutates as time passes And it’s never the same Each time it returns to our mind, it returns modified by different factors and circumstances, although nevertheless it seems to preserve the central meaning that gives it value.

Related topic: A binary code manages memory in the brain.

Important applications

According to scientists, a thorough understanding of these memory mechanisms has multiple applications. On the one hand, it can be useful to analyze witness testimony in court cases, as well as to improve student performance in examination situations.

But perhaps its most significant application is in the field of psychosocial illnesses: for example, it can serve to understand the behavior of people who suffer from the so-called posttraumatic stress, a pathology in which the individual cannot overcome negative experiences that they have lived and remains “frozen” in that trauma. Something similar happens in some types of depression, especially in those of a chronic nature.

In most cases, post-traumatic stress can be conditioned by distorted memories of the situations experienced: the person has built an excessively negative view of the event over time, which prevents them from seeing that there may even be teachings and reasons to be able to look again into the future.


Feature-specific reaction times reveal a semanticisation of memories over time and with repeated remembering. Lifanov et al. Nature Communications (2021).DOI:

Photo: Gemma Evans and Unsplash.

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