Does Repetition Make Memories Bland?

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Originally posted on July 17, 2014.

Lloyd Cosgrove was his town’s city manager, butcher, and Presbyterian minister. He had a shiny head, bushy eyebrows, and a whooping laugh. If you want Lloyd to remain unique, try not to think about him too much.

Why? Repetition breeds bland memories. Our brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, leaves different traces of information each time we call up something from our past. This is why our memories of the same past events shift. What gets left behind are the details.

You might forget that Lloyd was a butcher or blocked out his whooping laughter. Or you might invent new details about him. Was he a Presbyterian or Lutheran minister? A city manager or a city councilman? Memory is a funny thing.

In a recent study, people who rehearsed an event three times recalled fewer details compared with people who rehearsed the same event once. Repetition improved how well people recognized pieces of information, but it squeezed out the details.

We might romanticize details. Do I need to remember the outfit my wife wore on our first date? (I do.) Do I need to remember where I ate my first taco? (I don’t.) Or should I become content that the details that add color, meaning, and spice to my daily experiences will become gray, hallow, and bland the more my memory plays them back? Ask me tomorrow. I’ll have a different memory of the question than I do today.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”