What Are Memories For?

What exactly are memories? We all have them, but do we really know what memories truly are? This question has led to works of art, literature, and research in order to understand these illusive phenomenons. In everyday life, memories allow us to remember how to get from our house to a friend’s, recall the lyrics to a favorite song, and reflect upon past experiences to make decisions. In this blog post, we discuss what memories are for.

What Are Memories For?

From a biological perspective, memories are for survival. Without memory, we would not be able to avoid situations that we experienced that were dangerous, not eat foods that did not agree with our bodies, or recall how to put together materials to build a shelter. Memory allows us to store useful information, access information gathered from our past, and apply it to new situations. Think about when you learned how to use a hammer – you learned how to grasp it, when to use it, and how to use it without hurting yourself. Without memory, you would be able to effectively use this tool and remember that when something needs to be adhered to using nails, that you must use a hammer to do so. 

Of interest to philosophers and psychologists alike are what we call episodic memories – or memories that are made up of tidbits from past experiences that we think about. An example of an episodic memory would be recalling a favorite meal you had at a restaurant or an enjoyable trip to the beach from a past summer. These kinds of memories reflect the influence of the past on our present. Episodic memories allow us to access the specific details of an experience: who was involved, what happened, where the event occurred, and when the event took place. Sometimes, emotions surrounding an event may cause us to distort the exact details of a situation. When this happens, people may not recall information accurately, which may influence how they feel about a past experience or how they behave in the future.

Memory is also involved in our conception of selfhood. For example, when we call a situation, we may think about the memory from the perspective of ourselves or another person. Our ability to recall specific details of a memory that pertain uniquely to us allows us to separate ourselves from other people and participants in the memory. As people age, people can access episodic memories to tell a causal story that explains a situation from the past that they or someone they have observed has experienced. 


Memories may help us remember essential survival skills, recall experiences from our past, and aid in our conception of our own identity. We develop memories from our past experiences, which in turn shape our behavior in the present and the future. Sometimes, emotions may cause us to distort perceptions or specific details about certain events. When this happens, we may behave in a way that is not congruent with the reality of a past situation. To psychologists and philosophers alike, memories are complex and of interest, as we are still trying to understand exactly what memories are for.

Source: Boyer, P. (2009). What are memories for? Functions of recall in cognition and culture. Memory in mind and culture, 3-28. Chicago
Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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