When You Know Something But Can’t Remember Where You Learned It

a skeleton with a visible brain standing in front of a background of a puzzle with missing pieces
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

My friend is talking to me about a study with interesting findings.

“Oh wow,” I say. “That sounds really cool.” I tell them if they could send it over to me that would be great.

“Sure,” they say. But then add, “Actually, I’m not sure where I heard about it.”

We spend the next several minutes seeing if they can give me some more details. Do they remember where the study was conducted? The year? Any of the terms that were used within it?

Slowly but surely, I pull enough info out of them that I’m able to bring it up on a search.

Later in the day, I’m on the other side of it, when I’m talking to a different friend about the news. I can’t remember where I learned it, but I start explaining a complicated political reality that’s unfolding. And when I’m questioned about my source, I find myself similarly retracing my steps, reverse engineering what I can remember in order to pull up a relevant article via a search.

Source Amnesia Occurs in Basically Everyone But Affects People with Certain Conditions Even More

It’s very common for us to remember information but forget where exactly we learned it from. In psychology this phenomenon is known as source amnesia. Everyone is capable of source amnesia, and most of us experience it to some degree on a daily basis — as it’s typically more important for us to remember information than it is for us to remember where we heard it (unless you’re trying to attribute sources for a writing or trying to fact check).

However, source amnesia is also found even more prominently and to a higher degree in folks with frontal lobe damage, neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia, PTSD, and depression.

Source Monitoring Is Your Friend

Generally speaking, the best way to combat source amnesia is a process called source monitoring. It takes place much like the reverse engineering process I described in the introduction: An individual puts slow and deliberate effort into trying to recall details that might help them remember where they originally learned the information.

(And of course, there’s always the approach of using search engines with that same information.)

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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