The Seven Sins of Memory


May, 2002

BARBARA KOENIG (Associate Professor of Medicine, Executive Director, Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics): We’re going to start with Daniel Schacter. He is Professor of Psychology at Harvard and also serves as Chair of the Psychology Department there. And, his most recent book is The Seven Sins of Memory, How the Mind Forgets and Remembers and that’s what he’ll be talking about today as well.

DAN SCHACTER: Today we’re going to focus on some of the ethical implications of research on memory. And, I start from the, I think, noncontroversial plane that memory is not perfect and it’s mostly in relation to these imperfections of memory that interesting questions arise with respect to neuroethics. Now, one way of thinking about and organizing the various imperfections of memory is according to what I refer to as the Seven Sins of Memory. This is basically the idea that if you think about thevarious ways in which memory breaks down, I propose one way to categorize the various mperfections of memory is in terms of seven fundamental categories.

Daniel Schacter, Ph.D. - Thumbnail 
Daniel Schacter, Ph.D.Credit: Scott Lasky 
So, let’s start by talking a little bit about transience. Most introductory memory students are familiar with what I refer to as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which basically reflects the fact, that, as time passes, memory tends to degrade or become less accessible. One thing we would all like to do is to be able to stop this curve from happening, for better or worse. And, one pursuit of many researchers now, who are interested in the pharmacological basis of memory, is to try to find a drug that would interfere with this transience curve. We don’t have such a drug yet. There are many people attempting to find such interventions, but if and when the time comes, and it’s more likely when than if, I think there are a lot of interesting questions that would arise if a memory enhancing drug became available.

If we have such a drug, who should take it? Should we all be taking such a drug? For example, if it’s something that would help children function better in school, would you want your child taking a memory-enhancing drug? If your child does not take such a drug, does he or she risk falling behind his or her classmates? What about in business settings or in other job related settings? If, in order to get a job, you know that retention of informationwill give you an edge, what does it mean if you don’t want to take a memory enhancer, if it’s available? So, I don’t think we’re at the point yet of facing these kinds of questions, but I think it may not be too far in thefuture before we’re going to have to grapple with these kinds of questions that will likely result from the kinds of research that are going on now.

Okay, let’s move from transience to absentmindedness, a different type of forgetting that results not so much from the gradual fall off of memory over time, but rather from failing to pay attention at the time we carry out an act, often resulting in such irritating lapses as forgetting where you put your keys or glasses. One example that illustrates how extreme these phenomena can be, fairly innocent, is that of Yo Yo Ma who, one time left his $2.5 million cello in the trunk of a cab. He had just taken a 10-minute cab ride, got out, paid the driver and walked away, and only a few minutes later realized he had absentmindedly forgotten about his cello. Now, this was  presumably not a case of transience, if you had said to him, “Yo Yo,” as he was leaving the cab, “where’s your cello?” presumably he would have said, “Oh, it’s in the trunk.” The information hadn’t faded out of memory.

But, there are other darker ways in which this same basic absentmindedness process can occur, that I think raise some interesting ethical questions. Last year in the summer there was a tragic event, not unique, but extremely unfortunate, in which we see the Yo Yo Ma type of forgetting manifest in a different way. A woman was driving her infant daughter to work in a minivan, and went to her job—she was used to dropping off their older son, which she did; it was unusual for her to have to take the infant to work, her husband usually did that. She forgot about the presence of the infant in the back of her van, went to work where she worked as a hospital administrator and left the baby in the car the entire day, and through various miscommunications was not contacted, and unfortunately the baby died.

The question now is who is the responsible agent here? When we seethese absentminded kinds of errors, there’s more of a tendency to blame the individual rather than blame the memory. The responsibility is on you for arranging things so that you don’t forget. The outcome of this case, rather interestingly, and somewhat surprising to me—she was prosecuted criminally. But the judge ultimately concluded that this kind of forgetting, like other kinds of forgetting,  should be viewed as a kind of involuntary process, and basically concluded she simply forgot her child and was not to be held criminally responsible. I think there’s a larger issue here about who is responsible for various kinds of memory  failures, including these absentminded failures.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mike Williams from Johns Hopkins. I’m an intensive care neurologist, so I don’t deal with Alzheimer’s Disease a whole lot, but certainly there are treatments that are out for Alzheimer’s Disease. How would you relate that to transience and do you suggest that we could have memory enhancing drugs?

DAN SCHACTER: Well, I think in cases of memory pathology, overt memory disorder, if there is an effective treatment, I think, to my simplistic cognitive neuroscience mind, the ethical issues are less pressing, because there we have a disorder that’s impairing the individual’s ability to function, that may eventually result in the loss of their entire sense of self. So, it seems that if we have an effective treatment, there is not a big issue about using it other than the usual kinds of questions that would arise about side effects and so forth. To my mind the question becomes rather different when we look at trying to depart from our baseline level of function. That’s when, to my mind, the stickier questions arise. I’d be interested to know whether there is a difference of opinions on that, but I would see the difficult questions arising when we ask whether it’s possible to improve from the normal or baseline level of memory function.