This book situates what scientists know (and don’t know) about the human memory with our cultural practices as people. The two writers are Norwegian sisters (a neuro-psychologist and a novelist), so it’s heavily researched and well-written.
They build everything off the premise that our memories are not static. All of what we remember is a mix of real and fake. Factors like sleep and stress and hunger and repetition and mental illness all play major roles in what and how we remember things, including our ability to have false memories implanted in us. In their words, “remembering is imagining what happened” (243).
So why are our memories so unreliable? What’s the evolutionary purpose? One main reason is because we don’t have time to be remembering everything all the time. Our attention is a large factor in our memory process–that’s why it’s easier to remember stuff you care about. That’s also why you only remember certain aspects of an event that happened right in front of you. Like you might “remember” an altercation but not what color room you were in (tho we’re not good at that either–only 14% of witnesses remembered the correct “suspect” two minutes after a staged crime took place in front of them). I think that’s related to our fight or flight tendencies. If a few minutes go by and you didn’t take action, then it’s probably best to physiologically move on.
Anyway, part of the reason we have a memory at all is to predict the future. So we really only need to remember things that are directly relevant to that (re: Pavlov’s dogs). It’s helpful to think about how similar memories and ideas about the future feel to understand their relationship. We also use those stories about our pasts and futures in order socialize, and thus survive.