Why You Can’t Remember What Others Can

Imagine you’re speaking with a longtime friend you haven’t seen in years.  During the conversation, you bring up a memorable road trip the two of you took along with a group of friends.  Your friend looks puzzled and admits she has no recollection of the trip.  You think: “Is she serious right now?”.  How could your friend have no recollection of the trip, while you have fond memories of it?

This basic interaction begs the question: if two people experience the same thing, why does one person remember the experience while the other doesn’t?  More generally speaking, why do some people have better memories than others? 

The simple answer is genetics.  Some people are predisposed to remembering things better than others.  But that’s a lazy answer, and we’re not lazy people. 

We can understand memory better by first discussing experiences most people can remember, which can be broken down into three components.  After breaking down each component, I’ll connect all three to an overarching theme that is the grandaddy reason why we remember certain things and not others.

Monumental Memories

There are certain things most of us tend to remember.  The birth of a child, weddings, and graduations are all examples of what we’ll call “monumental memories”.  These moments are etched into our minds.  Why are these experiences things we’ll never forget?  

There are three components that make monumental experiences into memories we don’t forget.  The components are emotion, uniqueness, and importance.*  


Anything that elicits a strong emotion creates a memorable experience.  Weddings are filled with laughter and joy.  Funerals are comprised of sorrow and despair.  Even a seemingly trivial experience can be ingrained into our memories with the help of a strong emotion.  If you’re driving to work and see a hilarious billboard, the emotional kick of laughter can make the experience memorable.


We’re more likely to remember experiences that occur “once in a blue moon” as opposed to what occurs on a frequent basis.  Weddings are memorable for this reason because they are unique occurrences.  Now let’s say you’re a wedding crasher that attends weddings every weekend.  It’s unlikely the wedding crasher will remember every wedding.  All the weddings get meshed together because they are no longer unique.


We remember what we care about, and the things we care about have importance in our lives.  If you strive to climb the corporate latter, then getting a promotion is important.  The day your boss tells you you’ve been chosen for an upper managerial role is a day you will likely remember.  

The Grandaddy to Memories

Importance, uniqueness, and emotion all tie into one overarching theme.  Meaning.

What’s deemed meaningful is what’s remembered.  We become emotional because we have been moved by meaning.  We identity unique occurrences that create meaning.  We recognize something as important because it is meaningful.  

Failure to remember experiences is from a lack of meaning.  Therefore it’s not an issue of memory, but rather a failure in adding meaning to memories.  It’s easy to remember graduations and weddings because we’re conditioned to believe these are meaningful experiences. 

But what about my friend who failed to remember what I thought was a memorable trip?  From my friend’s perspective, the trip was a means of transportation from one place to the next.  From my perspective, the trip solidified our friendship.  It reminded me how fortunate I was to be part of a wonderful group of people.  

A means of transportation versus solidifying friendships.  No wonder I remembered the trip while my friend had no recollection.  

Find Meaning

We’re conditioned to believe only certain things are meaningful.  The thing is — most of life is mundane.  Therefore it’s our job to find meaning in the mundane.    

Meaning can be found anywhere you look, but you need to have the right perspective.  Not only are you watching the sun set, but you’re also internalizing the miracles of mother nature.  Not only were you helped up after a fall, but you recognized the kindness exhibited by strangers.  

Find meaning in your experiences.  Why?  Because a life of meaningful experiences leads to a life of meaning.  The issue isn’t a poor memory, but rather a failure to look at life through a meaningful lens.    


*If you’re wondering how I came up with the different components of memory, I was influenced by the two readings below:
Why Do We Remember Certain Things, But Forget Others?
Nostalgia, Emotions, and Why We Remember What We Remember 

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