What is Selective Memory?

Michelle Overman, LMFT
Updated on January 25, 2021

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 just a few days ago. In this case, a person is selecting information they want to remember while forgetting the rest.

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Selective memory implies a certain amount of intentionality behind it. It often involves the choice to only remember certain facts or events. The brain is powerful and can even incite the selective memory process. At times, it can happen in instances of trauma. Someone that 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. However, it can be a person’s way of attempting to forget 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. 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.

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 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. When 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 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. If you find it too painful or difficult to unpack these memories on your own, there are counselors that specialize in working with victims of trauma that can help work through the events and emotions they bring up. This is the truly healthy way to move forward in the long-term.

Michelle Overman, LMFT

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.