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Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath: “People have this illusion that personality is static. It’s not true”

The author of Why We Remember on memory, identity formation and “digital amnesia”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

A couple of moments after we sat down to talk, Charan Ranganath made an admission. “Before I forget – well,” he said, looking sheepish, “I already forgot your name.” It was an amusing introduction to a neuroscientist who specialises in memory. But, as Ranganath writes in his new book, Why We Remember, “It’s amazing we ever succeed” at remembering a stranger’s name, “because there’s nothing inherently meaningful about the connection between a name and a face.”  

The expectation that a person should hold on to such a detail about a stranger is just one of society’s many misconceptions about memory. “The belief is that memory should be effortless, it should be accurate, and it should be complete. And none of that is true,” Ranganath said, laughing. He likened the way memory functions to his work as a scientist. “I collect data. There’s always going to be error in my measurements; my experiments are always going to be a narrow slice of reality. And then I construct a theory to explain the data. But people often aren’t aware of the distinction between the theory and the data.” Each time our brain recalls details from what we perceive to be our memory, we might not consider that it is also retrieving elements from other sources – photos we’ve seen, anecdotes friends have told us – to “connect the dots” and provide a fuller story. 

Ranganath was born in Madras, India, in 1971 and moved to the United States with his parents when he was less than a year old. He grew up in San Jose, California, and still lives in the state, where he is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program and the Dynamic Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis.  

When we met in in a high-ceilinged, book-lined room in his publisher’s central London office, he wore tinted glasses, a black blazer and grey trousers. Though he looked relaxed as he lounged in an armchair, he seemed highly aware of his role as a “memory expert” too: phrases such as “At one point I memorised it, but I’ve forgotten now” and “My memory might be off, but…” peppered his speech. 

Ranganath chose to study psychology because he felt “different”, he said. “That got me interested in what makes people work the way they work.” Growing up in San Jose, “an extraordinarily racist area”, he was surrounded by white people, and his Indian parents taught him that they were “different from everyone else”. At school he was often in trouble for talking too much and getting into fights. When he was around ten, his teachers told his parents that he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He has never sought a formal diagnosis – “I don’t know that it makes a difference. Psychiatrists treat symptoms, they don’t treat disorders” – but has recently started seeing an ADHD coach. “It’s given me an appreciation for how I think relative to how other scientists think. I know a lot of people who are methodical and systematic, and that’s an ideal approach for science. I don’t do that. I’m very intuitive. I see the world differently.” 

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Ranganath has studied the brain for more than 25 years, using imaging techniques, computational modelling and studies of patients with memory disorders to research the mechanisms in the brain that allow us to remember. But he isn’t sure what his earliest memory is. “My friend who studies autobiographical memory told me he thinks I have a severely deficient autobiographical memory,” he said. This is quite common. Ranganath estimates that 19 out of 20 people tell him they have a “terrible memory”, while the 20th person will claim to have a “photographic memory”. This person is likely overconfident. “Even if you have a very visual memory, if it’s detailed and vivid, I guarantee you it’s incomplete.”  

If, the day after we met, Ranganath asked me to recall everything that was said during our one-hour interview, I wouldn’t be able to – and it doesn’t matter. Biologically speaking, it isn’t necessary for humans to recall the past in exacting detail. “Forgetting isn’t a failure of memory,” Ranganath writes in Why We Remember. “It’s a consequence of processes that allow our brains to prioritise information that helps us navigate and make sense of the world.” He believes memory’s most important function is not “relaying the past but orienting us to the future. Our memories of the past… enable us to allocate critical resources to what is new and what has changed. This capability likely played a central role in helping our ancient ancestors survive in a volatile world.” 

While studying for a PhD in clinical psychology at Northwestern University, Illinois, Ranganath worked as a therapist at a clinic at Evanston Hospital. He met patients who were suffering from depression, or experiencing trauma after a brain injury, as well as those with possible Alzheimer’s disease. Whatever the patient’s story, he found that “memory was at the centre of everything”. One of his patients had a driving phobia after being in a car accident. Behaviour therapy to overcome that fear didn’t help. “Then one day he told me that the day he had got into the car accident, he had come out of the closet to his father… It didn’t go well.” Ranganath focused the following therapy sessions on this detail, and eventually the patient was able to reach “some kind of closure”, he said. “Most deep therapy is really about processing memory.” 

Our memories inform our identities. “Ultimately I believe who you are is a set of beliefs, and all of our beliefs are informed by memory.” Memories are important because they are ours: “A life narrative is enriched by the sense that you experienced the thing yourself, as opposed to some fact that you read in a book. That informs your sense of who you are.” This can be shown by studying people who have conditions that leave them unable to form new memories, such as dementia, with which the Alzheimer’s Society estimates more than 900,000 people in the UK live. “Their view of themselves is stuck in time,” Ranganath said. “They progress but they’re frozen in terms of their sense of identity. People have this illusion that personality is static, that the way you’re born is the way you always are. It’s not true. The self changes over time” – and needs to develop new memories to do so. 

Our growing reliance on digital technology has dramatically affected our ability to remember. Studies have shown the existence of “digital amnesia”: the more you rely on the internet to look up information, the less you commit it to memory. And while many pride themselves on their ability to “multitask”, studies show that “media multitasking” – such as working between multiple tabs, or regularly switching between email and text messages – impairs memory. “There’s a tendency for people to be so fragmented in their experiences that their memories become blurry. And then a week goes by and you say: ‘What happened? I don’t remember anything.’ And it’s because you’ve been doing so many different things.” The photo-sharing app Snapchat – to which users post an image that disappears after 24 hours – “is an apt metaphor for how our memories can be affected by technology”. 

But Ranganath’s scientific nous does not discount the value of social media altogether. For all our discussion of the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, of functional magnetic resonance imaging scans and lab rats, his face lit up when describing Facebook’s “Memories” feature, which reminds users of posts from the past. Recently it revived photographs of a university visit he made to Grenada some years ago, and the view he and his host looked out on as they ate their dinner. “It brought back such rich memories,” he said, filled with contentment at the thought.

[See also: The new age of perfectionism]

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