An Overview Of Selective Memory

Updated February 28, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Everyone forgets 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, such as skills, friendships, relationships, abilities, or even prior traumatic experiences. Selective memory extends beyond typical forgetfulness and may be explained by deeper, more serious issues. 

Is Your Selective Memory Contributing To Problems In Your Life?

What Is Selective Memory?

Selective memory (also sometimes referred to as selective amnesia) is 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. In general, it only becomes an issue when it begins 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 devoted countless hours to studying selective memory and the potential factors that can lead to its occurrence. Even though new research is conducted each day, an article published in Frontiers in Psychology noted that emotional influences can either enhance or impair learning and retention of new information.

Imbalanced Emotions

Individuals who have personality disorders or other similar ailments may be more susceptible to emotional highs and lows. A great example of this is bipolar disorder, which is generally associated with manic highs and depressive lows. Extreme emotional highs and lows are moreover linked to mental functions, similarly to memory. People who have various personality disorders may experience a phenomenon where their feelings are so intense that they outweigh the proper recollection of an event. This is clinically known as disassociation, which is regarded as a rather extreme form of selective memory.

Poor Nutrition

Another potential factor involved in selective memory comes in the form of poor dieting. The food that people consume can impact their lives in more ways than they can begin to imagine. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that certain foods can have long-term, adverse impacts on an individual’s memory and disturb their thinking capabilities.

Preservatives, processed foods/drinks, chemical additives, and foods with high amounts of sugar are all linked to negative effects on the brain. For this reason (and many others), the consumption of healthy foods (fruits, fish, vegetables, poultry, etc.) is strongly encouraged. Processed, sugary foods may taste good; however, that doesn’t mean that they are healthy for the body and mind. 

Human Willpower

People do have the power to repress and eventually forget certain memories, states an article from Telegraph. Intentionally repressing a memory for long enough can cause one to forget it. This occurs because the brain becomes active when someone purposefully works to forget something.

While selective memory is generally regarded as a negative happening, there are certain instances where it can come in handy. An example of this is in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other painful events that may do more harm than good. It is inadvisable to repress memories as a manner of dealing with challenges from the past. Unresolved, buried issues tend to fester and ooze out in unhealthy manners if they are not dealt with. Therefore, handling problems as they arise is often much more constructive than simply attempting to forget them. However, human willpower is sometimes a component that can prompt or enable selective memory. If you want to recover or if you're dealing with repressed memories, you might want to try repressed memory therapy.


The human brain and body are always changing. However, not all changes are helpful, especially as people age. Many side effects of aging can manifest in the form of memory problems. Sadly, one symptom of various memory issues can be selective memory or a form of it. Common memory disorders of this nature include, but are not limited to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amnesia, stress, dementia, etc. Often, a healthy lifestyle (exercise, human interactions, nutritious diet) can serve as a deterrent to the memory ailments above.

A Clinical Analysis

Selective memory can be incredibly layered. Many of these variations come in the form of amnesia or hypermnesia. First and foremost, it can be important to understand that amnesia comes in various forms and degrees. In its mildest capacity, a mild amnesiac may struggle to remember 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 only pertains to certain memories, the former (at its worst) causes the person to lose touch with all their memories.

Another form of amnesia (and selective memory) manifests in the form of forgetting various periods within an event. 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 is referred to as a blackout; however, it is usually engendered by drugs, alcohol, trauma, or other unpleasantries.

Evocation amnesia could almost be regarded as a distant cousin of lacunar amnesia. Instead of forgetting various periods within an event, this offshoot of selective memory prompts the afflicted individual 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. Oddly enough, the plighted individual may remember everything else about the people they encountered other than their names.

Finally comes hypermnesia. This variation of selective memory may be somewhat confusing to most people. In a sense, hypermnesia is the reverse of amnesia. Rather than the decreasing lack of memory (amnesia), hypermnesia occurs when an individual eerily seems to remember information all at once. This phenomenon is much rarer than amnesia and is most reported among individuals who have undergone near-death experiences or had epilepsy at one point or another.

Personality Traits And Selective Memory

The various forms and clinical analyses regarding selective memory inherently beg to question: are certain personality types more susceptible to selective memory than others?

Individual personality traits may have significant impacts on how someone recalls a prior situation or encounter. In layman’s terms, selective memory is a matter of perception. For instance, people who tend to be more anxious or on edge are likelier to remember a situation in a manner that suits their desires and wishes.


In its most insidious and malicious form, selective memory is sometimes regarded as a common trait among narcissists and other malignantly self-centered individuals. However, when regarding narcissists, selective memory tends to be more calculated and intentional, rather than clinical.

Narcissists with an agenda may, therefore, seek to manipulate certain people or circumstances by telling revised versions of an occurrence. They may purposefully leave out certain information or details to cast themselves in a favorable light or paint a picture that simply isn’t accurate.

However, even amongst narcissists, there are some questions and debates regarding selective memory. While some individuals maintain that narcissists gleefully lie and misrepresent situations for the sake of improving their self-image, other people have stated that narcissists truly do believe what they’re saying. In other words, the latter group believes that narcissists have succumbed to such an intense state of delusion that they have fallen for their con and believe their claims, regardless of how misleading or duplicitous they may be.

A Final Word

To some extent, every person has a degree of “selective memory.” After all, memories are not clear-cut; they are not black and white. Two people could witness the same event and still leave with somewhat conflicting viewpoints. Every person’s beliefs and personal interpretations are, to some degree, influenced by who they are, how they perceive the world, and their prior experiences.

Selective memory can become problematic when it seriously impacts one’s ability to interact with others and recall events. Someone who experiences genuine and clinical selective memory can seek out the services of a licensed professional to determine what their options for treatment are.

Is Your Selective Memory Contributing To Problems In Your Life?

Online Counseling With BetterHelp

If you are not sure about pursuing face-to-face therapy, or if such resources are not available in your area, online therapy might be another option. Although online therapy is a relatively new tool in the realm of mental health resources, it can be an effective and convenient alternative to traditional therapy. Platforms such as BetterHelp offer affordable options such as phone calls, video conferences, and in-app messaging. You can attend these sessions without leaving your home, on your own schedule, and with a licensed therapist who is uniquely trained to help you.

The Efficacy Of Online Counseling 

study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found 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 enjoyed online session homework, phone coaching, and text messages, which are three key tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients reported improvements in their cognitive recall over several sessions.

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 clients 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’s explicitly connects current reflections back to the goals that were . She’s a great listener, and she great advice."

The Takeaway

Many people experience selective memory from time to time. It may be a defensive mechanism that helps defend us from negative emotions, a sign of a personality or 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 may help you discover the root of your selective memory and take steps to overcome it. 

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