I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.

NOEL COWARD (1899-1973)



Flawed Memory

Recent studies into memory suggest that very little of what we think we remember is to be relied upon as accurate. For example, a recollection of ‘love at first sight’ (claimed by half of men in a survey of 10,000 people in long-term relationships, though only a quarter of women) is, more likely than not, no more than a back-projection of your current feelings, according to memory researchers. 

We think of memory as like a written note: once it’s written down it may fade or be damaged or lost, but its content is fixed. But work by Karim Nader of McGill University in Montreal suggests that the very process of remembering itself alters your memories – ie, every time you recall an event you can’t avoid re-constructing it slightly differently. For example: Can you remember what you doing when the World Trade Center was attacked? Nader himself recalled seeing the first plane hitting the tower on TV on 9/11, but then found out that that footage aired for the first time the following day - and this misperception turned out to be shared by 73% of students tested as well as George W Bush himself. Bush’s memory lapse was seized on by conspiracy theorists ('Complicit factions of the U.S. federal government... actually FILMED their own attack on New York’s World Trade Center — and Bush has admitted that he WATCHED IT!!!! And there is only one POSSIBLE way such footage COULD have existed: the perpetrators of the WTC attack HAD THEIR OWN CAMERAS IN PLACE TO FILM IT'), but is entirely consistent with what we know about the flawed nature of normal memory. 

What Were You Doing When...

The familiar meme about everybody remembering where they were when they heard that JFK had been shot actually dates back to 1899. A psychologist named FW Colegrove investigated people’s memories of the Lincoln assassination 34 years earlier and reported that over two-thirds of them could remember what they had been doing when they heard the news.

It was later termed ‘flashbulb memory’.


Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.

False Memory

In a 2014 study, researchers managed to convince 70% of participants that they’d committed crimes, theft or assault, during their adolescence, even though none of them had, using techniques like false evidence:

‘According to your parents, you did this...’

and social pressure:

‘most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough’. 


The true sage is absent-minded. He cannot remember his bad deeds; he cannot remember his good deeds.

Bump on the Head

Contrary to film depictions no-one ever forgets who they are. In fact, amnesia caused by illness or brain damage typically manifests as an inability to lay down new memories. An amnesiac will be able to tell you who they are, share stories about their earlier lives, and retain their former intelligence, attention span, personality and identity, but they won't be able to tell you what they had for breakfast. The Right of Way (1915) first used the idea that a physical trauma can cause you to you forget everything that happened beforehand, but leave the capacity for new learning intact.

Another very common feature of amnesia as depicted in films is the idea that 'two is better than one' when it comes to head injuries; all it takes to restore your faculties is a second serious head injury. Needless to say, this ‘cure’ is unknown to mainstream medical practice.

Photographic Memory

There is something called the 'photo-taking impairment effect’ in which taking a photograph reduces our ability to remember an event properly.

Dr Linda Henkel, from Fairfield University, Connecticut, led a group around a museum, and told them to photograph some objects, and remember others. People proved less accurate in recognising the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only looked at, presumably because concentrating on the photo-taking means we don’t properly notice the object itself, or perhaps because if we know we have a photo we don’t bother to remember.

On the other hand, taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it seemed to preserve memory for the whole object, not just the part that was zoomed in on - i.e. it apparently had the opposite effect.

Robert Mitchum could memorise his lines from an entire film script after a single read-through.

Octopuses can be taught how to open jam-jars, but forget how to do it almost as soon as you stop teaching them.


The world record for reciting pi is held by Hiroyuki Goto of Japan. He knows the first 42,195 digits by heart.

Someone suffering from hyperthymestia remembers everything that has ever happened in their life.

A zebra's memory is about half as good as a horse's.


Sheep can remember at least 50 sheep faces, even when they haven’t seen them for two years.