Simply put, selective memory is a person’s ability to remember certain information and not remember other information. It can be the punch line of many 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 2 weeks ago. In this case, a person is selecting information they want to remember, forgetting the rest. Selective memory is not simply just remembering some information while forgetting other information. This type of memory implies a certain amount of intentionality behind it. Selective memory often involves the choice to only remember certain facts or events. The brain is powerful and can even incite the selective memory process. It can happen in instances of trauma. 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 they get dumped, they might delete photos and block numbers in an attempt to move forward. Some of that can be out of sight, out of mind. However, it can be a person’s way of attempting to not remember the painful emotions felt when the relationship ended.
In the examples provided, selective memory can bring a protective layer to a person. There are some experiences in life that your brain, along with time, allows you to not remember. Have you ever been talking to someone and they bring up something that happened years ago? Suddenly, you are thrown back into that memory when you had not thought of it in years. It can be a strange experience when that happens. Some memories are so painful it can help to forget some of the details in order to move forward. Selective memory is not all bad, but it might not serve as a helpful long-term solution.
Over time, selectively remembering certain information can cause problems. If you lock away information, it does not necessarily mean there will not be ramifications. For example, if someone is abused, they might still experience certain emotional concerns even if the details of certain events are forgotten. Avoiding certain memories or experiences can leave complicated emotions that have nowhere to go. When certain emotions are not addressed, it can cause problems over time. They can encourage avoidant behaviors that will drive wedges in a person’s relationships. Depending on the information, event, or memory, utilizing selective memory can result in other long term issues.
While it can be appropriate and helpful in terms of protecting you, selective memory does not always serve as a solid long-term solution. Addressing certain issues rather than selectively remembering information is important when moving forward in life. It will likely be difficult in the moment. However, it will provide the potential for more sustained comfort and positive change.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.