An overview of selective memory

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Everyone might forget things from time to time—whether it’s where you put your keys, what time a meeting was starting, or on which day a party was taking place.

Many people have used the term “selective memory” to refer, often critically, to someone who seemingly chooses only what they’d like to remember. However, an individual who genuinely experiences selective amnesia may forget certain significant events or milestones in their lives. These can include events and experiences such as skills, friendships, relationships, abilities, or even prior traumatic experiences. 

Selective memory can extend beyond typical forgetfulness and can be associated with other medical conditions. Read on to learn more about what selective memory is, what conditions it can be associated with, and strategies that can help.

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What is selective memory?

Selective memory (also sometimes referred to as selective amnesia) can be clinically defined as “the ability to retrieve certain facts and events but not others.” There can be a variety of explanations for someone displaying selective memory. Left untreated, the condition does have the potential to affect an individual’s quality of life, interpersonal relationships, or day-to-day functioning. 

Potential causes of selective memory

Many scientists and psychologists have studied factors that can lead to the formation of selective memory. Recent findings found in an article published in Frontiers in Psychology noted that emotional influences can either enhance or impair learning and retention of new information—possibly bringing on selective memory.

Other possible causes can include:

Imbalanced emotions

Individuals who live with personality disorders or other similar ailments may be more susceptible to emotional highs and lows that can precede the formation of selective memory. An example of this can be bipolar disorder, which is generally associated with manic highs and depressive lows. 

Poor nutrition

Another potential factor that can be involved in selective memory can come in the form of poor diet habits. The food that people consume can impact their lives in many ways. Therefore, it may come as no surprise to many that certain foods can have long-term impacts on an individual’s memory and affect their thinking capabilities.

Preservatives, processed foods and drinks, chemical additives, and foods with high amounts of sugar have all been scientifically linked to direct neurological effects. For this reason (and many others), the consumption of healthy foods (fruits, fish, vegetables, and poultry) is generally strongly encouraged over other options when possible.

Human willpower

People are scientifically suggested to have the power to repress and eventually forget certain memories. Intentionally repressing a memory for long enough can cause one to forget it.

While selective memory is generally regarded as a negative occurrence, there are certain instances where it can be helpful to one’s overall quality of life. An example of this can be seen in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other instances where painful events may do more harm than good. It is generally inadvisable to repress memories as a manner of dealing with challenges from the past, however. 

Unresolved, buried issues can result in unhealthy coping mechanisms if they are effectively processed. Therefore, addressing problems as they arise can be a more constructive option for many than simply attempting to forget them. Online therapy can be a helpful tool in overcoming repression and other similar events.

Diseases, disorders, and aging 

The effects of aging can manifest in the form of memory discrepancies and changes. Selective memory in this context can be a common occurrence. Additionally, conditions can lead to selective memory and memory changes. Common memory disorders of this nature include, but are not limited to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amnesia, stress, and dementia. 

While aging can affect everyone differently, many find that a healthy lifestyle (including exercise, human interactions, and a nutritious diet) can serve as a deterrent to the formation of memory ailments—such as those listed above.

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A clinical analysis: How can selective memory appear?

Selective memory can be incredibly layered. Many of these variations can come in the form of amnesia or hypermnesia. These conditions can range in severity and manifestation. In its mildest capacity, amnesia can cause someone to have difficulty remembering certain facts or pieces of information. 

In more severe degrees, an individual who experiences amnesia may lose ownership of virtually all their memories. Extreme amnesia generally surpasses selective memory; while the latter might only pertain to certain memories. The former (at its most severe) can cause the person to lose touch with all their memories.

Another form of amnesia (and selective memory) can manifest in the form of forgetfulness across various time periods. Clinically known as lacunar amnesia, someone who has this ailment may subsequently lose the memory of seconds, hours, or even days of a particular event. Sometimes lacunar amnesia can be referred to as a blackout—and it can be engendered by drugs, alcohol, trauma, or other relevant stimuli.

Evocation amnesia can show similarities to lacunar amnesia as a condition. Instead of forgetting various periods within an event, this version of selective memory dysfunction can prompt the person living with it to lose recollection of the specific names of individuals or inanimate objects. 

For instance, an evocative amnesiac might meet various people at events, yet subsequently, fail to remember their names. This can occur despite the possibility that the person may remember everything else about the people they encountered— other than their names.

Hypermnesia is the final variation of selective memory that is mentioned here. This variation of selective memory is considered by many to be the inverse of amnesia. Rather than the increasing lack of memory (amnesia), hypermnesia can occur when an individual seems to remember information encountered all at once.

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Experiencing difficulties with your memory?

How can online counseling help those experiencing selective memory?

If you are not sure whether pursuing face-to-face therapy is right for you, or if such resources are not available in your area, online therapy can be another helpful option to consider. 

Platforms such as BetterHelp can offer convenient options for contact and support, including phone calls, video conference calls, and in-app messaging on your smart device. Users can attend these sessions without leaving the home or their secondary safe space on their own schedule—and can work with the same therapist over time. 

Is online counseling effective? 

Researchers have found information that suggests that online therapy can offer comparable benefits to what many might find with in-person methods.

The result of a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science suggests that computer-delivered memory training helped alleviate the symptoms of participants living with generalized anxiety disorders, cognitive biases, and other related conditions. 

It also found that patients undergoing behavioral therapy reportedly enjoyed online session homework, phone coaching, and text messages, which are three key tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients self-reported improvements in their cognitive recall over several sessions in the linked study.

Therapist reviews

“Beth has been absolutely amazing! I was wary about the platform at first and doing so much work via messaging, but it feels easy with Beth. She remembers our conversations and checks in with me if I don’t say anything for a few days. She’s able to make observations about my life without taking sides or making me feel judged. I feel so fortunate to be working with her.”

“Amy makes great attempts to try and figure out how to best approach the client's needs for each session. She’s willing to listen if that’s what you need. She’s willing to ask questions if that’s what’s needed. She also gives great examples for your current needs. I love that she explicitly connects current reflections back to the goals that were. She’s a great listener, and she gives great advice."

Takeaway

Many people can experience selective memory from time to time. It may be a defensive mechanism that helps save us from negative emotions, a sign of a mental health disorder, or even a result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

Whatever the case, selective memory may not be anything to worry about unless it begins to impact how you function from day to day or harm your quality of life. Seeking support from an online therapist can help you discover the root of your selective memory and can help you take steps to overcome it. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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