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Blog Short #177: Why Do You Remember Something Differently Than Someone Else?

Photo by milorad kravic, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Imagine you’re conversing with a good friend, or maybe your partner or family member, and talking about an event you both experienced. As you speak, your memories of what happened, what was said, and how it felt are different.

You remember some things the same way, but you each recall particular parts of the event differently. Maybe one of you recalls something the other doesn’t remember at all.

Why does this happen?

You probably have some ideas but don’t know how variable and distorted your memories can be. It’s rather impressive!

It’s all related to how memories are formed and retrieved over time and what they mean to you. Other factors are also involved, which we’ll go over today.

It helps to have this information because it will change how you look at past experiences. You’ll understand why your memories can be significantly different than someone else’s and how they can become distorted.

Let’s start with how memories are made.

The 4-Step Process of Memory Formation

Four steps must successfully occur to form a memory and make it stick: encoding, consolidation, storage, and retrieval.

All of these are facilitated by your hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Let’s go through them briefly.

  1. Encoding is the identification and capturing of what’s happening. It includes recognizing all the sensory information, such as sight, sounds, and smells, as well as the emotions, meanings, and perceptions you assign to what’s happening. Your brain then translates all of this information into “neurological language.”
  2. In the consolidation phase, the hippocampus connects all the encoded neurological information into a “single pattern” of neural associations. In other words, a unique neurological network representing the memory is created and it’s a stable pattern.
  3. Storage occurs once the consolidation process is complete. The memory is maintained over time and stored in your brain, where it can be retrieved.
  4. Retrieval means what it says. You can now recall the memory by activating the neural pattern established during consolidation. And you can revisit it as often as you like.

That all sounds great, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many opportunities exist for distortions to occur along the way. Let’s begin with how memories are stored.

Why Your Memories Might Not Be Accurate or Complete

If you’re like me, you imagine that your memories are stored in your brain in a single location, something like your hard drive on your computer. Or maybe like a huge file room with many files and file cabinets labeled by year.

That, however, is not how it works.

The neural pattern formed when you make a memory is distributed among the different parts of your brain that were involved in creating it (visual, hearing, smells, etc.).

To consolidate the memory, the hippocampus “repeatedly activates the parts of the brain to be remembered until those parts become a stable connected pattern of activity, essentially wired together” (Genova, 2021).

In other words, the memory is not in one place with all the other memories. It’s spread across the areas of the brain that were active and contributed to the memory when it was formed, such as the visual cortex, audio cortex, etc.

It’s a neural network of associations, and when you recall the memory, your brain activates the same associations and connections as a single unit.

Secondly, every time you recall a memory, you edit it based on your current state of mind, circumstances, new things you’ve learned, or values you’ve acquired or changed.

The new memory needs to fit in with your life as it is now, so there are revisions.

Most importantly, once you edit the memory, you replace the old memory with the revised version and can no longer access the original memory. It’s the same as editing a document on your computer and saving it. The old document is gone and replaced with the edited version.

Think of that game where someone whispers something in the ear of the person sitting next to them, then that person whispers it to the next person, and so on until you get around the circle. The final statement that the last person reveals is usually very different from the original statement.

Our memories probably don’t get that distorted, but we do change them with each revision, increasing the chances of distortion.

The Power of Attention

Other factors play a role. The most prominent is “paying attention.”

Not all things that happen become memories. Only those things you pay attention to have a chance of moving to the consolidation phase.

You start with what’s called “working memory.” Working memory is what you can hold in your mind for 15 to 30 seconds, after which time it’s gone unless you signal to the hippocampus that you want to save it in your long-term memory. You can hold only 7 to 9 things, plus or minus, at any time.

Paying attention is the prime mover that facilitates the shift from working memory to long-term memory. What you focus on or pay attention to sticks, and what you don’t goes away.

Have you ever gotten up from one room to go get something in another room, and when you got there, you couldn’t remember what you came for? You didn’t focus long enough on your original thought to keep it in memory, so when you arrived in the other room, it was gone.

This same thing happens when trying to recall more mundane things, such as what you need at the grocery store, that phone call you need to make, or anything that doesn’t have a little more energy to it. The brain likes novelty, surprises, and energy.


Another significant factor in memory-making is the impact of emotion.

Experiences that create strong emotions are more memorable because they stimulate the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in fight, flight, or freeze. Strong emotions get and maintain your attention. They’re sticky.

But here’s the catch: emotions also narrow what you remember. For example, let’s say you have an argument with your partner. What you each take away from that conversation will likely be different. You’ll both recall different parts of the conversation and maybe even different words in some circumstances.

What sticks in your mind is what was most emotionally impactful to you.

Omissions, revisions, and skewed evaluations are due to your emotions at the time. Additionally, every time you recall the conversation, you continue to edit as you try to validate your point of view in your mind.

Sometimes, people rewrite history and add information that wasn’t part of the original conversation. Have you had this experience? It makes things very messy!


Meaning is another very essential factor in memory formation.

When you experience something impactful, you apply meaning to it. To do that, you might draw from previous experiences, or maybe something someone else said or something you recently saw, like a movie or a book you read. Meaning is multi-faceted and open to a lot more interpretation than simply paying attention.

Meaning supplies some of the major differences you might have with someone else when recalling experiences or conversations. This goes for positive as well as negative experiences.

For example, you and your partner might fondly watch your daughter play softball while sitting in the stands at her school but remember parts of it differently because of other memories that are stimulated while watching.

You might reminisce about playing a sport when you were in school or feel the sunshine on your back and be reminded of playing outside with friends in your neighborhood. Your partner may remember his Dad coaching him loudly from the stands as he was playing third base and how that embarrassed him.

Memories can cue other memories that change your experience of the current situation. They supply more meaning, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

What does all this mean?

It means that it’s wise to recognize that your memories can be distorted or partially true, especially over time. Memories not recalled over long periods may fade away as the neural network holding them disbands from lack of use.

So, question them as you recall them. They aren’t videos of what happened. Sometimes, they’re more like impressionistic paintings.

However, you can do some things to improve your memory, which is the subject of next week’s blog. I think you’ll find it helpful.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,



Genova, L. (2021). The Science of Remembering and the Art of Forgetting. Harmony.
Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Simon & Schuster.

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