What Is Selective Memory?

Michelle Overman, Author
Updated on June 18, 2024

Selective memory is a person’s tendency to remember certain pieces of information while forgetting others. The term is often used in the punch line of jokes, like when a spouse gets upset with their partner about forgetting to take out the trash. They might indignantly say something like, “I always take out the trash” which is not true. In reality, they had forgotten to take out the trash just a few days ago. In this case, a person is selecting the information they want to remember while forgetting the rest.

old photos used for remembering events

Possible Causes of Selective Memory

Selective memory implies a certain amount of intentionality behind it. It often involves the choice to remember only certain facts or events. The brain is powerful and can even incite the selective memory process.

Emotional Pain

At times, selective memory can be the result of a traumatic event. Someone who experienced abuse when they were young might not remember what happened in full detail. The brain helps them to forget traumatic moments that would bring tremendous pain.

Sometimes selective memory is more directed by a person. If a romantic partner leaves them, they might delete photos and block their number, attempting to move forward. They may also try to forget the painful emotions felt when the relationship ended.

In these examples, selective memory can serve as a defense mechanism for the person, shielding them from emotional pain. Some memories are so painful it can help to forget some of the details to move forward. Selective memory is not all bad, but it might not serve as a helpful long-term solution.


Age-related memory decline is very common and can result in instances of selective memory. There are some experiences in life that your brain, along with time, allows you to forget. An example would be when an old friend reminds you of something you did many years ago. Suddenly, you are thrown back into that memory, though you had forgotten about it long ago.

Medical Conditions

While memories our memories tend to deteriorate as we age, there are some conditions, some of which mostly impact the elderly, that can exacerbate this process. Common causes of memory loss include Parkinson’s disease, amnesia, and dementia. These are known to impact the brain and can cause selective memory.


Along with many other physical impairments caused by stress is memory loss. Over time, stress can cause the synapses in the brain to degenerate, making it difficult to process, store, and recall information. In addition, the protective coating of the brain can become weakened due to stress, which results in the killing of neurons (nerve cells in the brain), contributing to forgetfulness.

How to Cope

If your selective memory is caused by stress, a medical condition, or aging, then engaging in a healthy lifestyle that includes diet, exercise, and dietary supplements can be very helpful in reducing forgetfulness.

On the other hand, if your selective memory is your brain’s coping mechanism for avoiding negative emotions, you may want to consider speaking with a mental health professional. While it might be painful to do so, it’s healthier long-term.

If one is a victim of abuse, they may still feel the impact of the trauma in their daily lives, even if the details of the event are forgotten. Avoiding certain memories or experiences can still leave behind complicated emotions that have nowhere to go. They can encourage avoidant behaviors that will drive wedges in a person’s relationships.

While it can be appropriate and helpful in terms of protecting you, a selective memory rarely serves as a solid long-term solution. Addressing issues rather than selectively remembering information is important when moving forward in life. It will likely be difficult at the moment. However, it will provide the potential for more sustained comfort and positive change.

If you find it too painful or difficult to unpack these memories on your own, some counselors specialize in working with victims of trauma and those suffering from PTSD and can help work through the events and emotions they bring up. This is a truly healthy way to overcome negative emotions and thoughts.


Michelle Overman, Author

Michelle is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families.

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