I am the second daughter of a family of four girls. If you asked any of us what we remember about our childhood and our parents, you would definitely receive four different answers. One is adamant that both my parents were alcoholics. Another one is convinced they were the best parents in the world. Who’s right? Both actually. That’s because the chosen memories each of us holds in our minds determines the story of our past. Unfortunately, even though you and I would like to believe our memories are flawless, they are seldom an accurate portrayal of what really happens at any given time. Instead, the majority of our memories are a process that we use to make meaning and sense of our experiences. But with most of that process unconscious, the quality of both our past and our future reflects the stories we habitually focus on and tell. Want a better future? Choose to remember, and then tell, a better story about your past.
Could it really be that simple? Well no. That’s because the way we create our memories is a complicated business. Fortunately for us all, science now proves that altering them in a positive way is possible. Reading up on some of the latest in memory research is a good place to start.
Generally, most of us think of our memory as a DVR or video recorder. We think that when something happens in our lives, our minds “record” the information and store it away until needed. Yet even though most of us admit we routinely forget large chucks of what happened, we still persist in thinking that it is possible to recall information and events accurately. While some of us are better at it than others, the vast majority of us do worse than we acknowledge.
What’s going on? Basically our memories all begin with our sensory perception. We like to believe we know and observe everything going on around us all the time, but we actually only perceive a tiny percentage of the input happening at any given moment. Of course, consciously and unconsciously we pre-guide our minds to primarily pay attention to things we believe are important, unique, or threatening. The remaining thousands of bits of input are then lost in an instant.
Once we focus on and perceive something, we usually hold that perception in our short-term memory to evaluate whether we want to continue to “store” it or not. Sadly, our short-term memory is quite limited. On an average most people can only hold seven things in their mind for approximately 20 to 30 seconds.
However, when something is important enough, and judged by us as worthy of remembering, the perception is transferred to our long-term memory banks for future use. Still, what we later recall isn’t really the exact observation. Instead, what we store is the overall general idea of the memory—the “gist” of the story—based upon how we choose to interpret it. Even when we manage to hang on to a few of the more important details, what we really recollect is often inaccurate. As author and psychologist Leonard Mlodinow says in his book Subliminal, “…when pressed for the unremembered details, even well-intentioned people making a sincere effort to be accurate will inadvertently fill in the gaps by making things up.” Unfortunately that’s a big problem because as Mlodinow continues, ”People will believe the memories they make up.”
That’s where the memory problem becomes really tricky. Mlodinow mentions several studies that show when we repeatedly tell our interpretation of the story, and then recall it at a later date, “there wasn’t just memory loss; there were also memory additions.” With time we tend to “smooth out” our memories and fit them into a comfortable narration that fits our prior knowledge of the world. It is very human to want to find meaning and make sense of the world and our experiences. So, when we remember, we rewrite our memories into a story to fits our “prior knowledge and beliefs,” and even our “preformed tendencies and bias.” In fact, Mlodinow is convinced that with memory, “Inaccuracy was the rule, not the exception.”
Quite a few humorous examples exist that show how mistaken we can be when we rely on our memory. Anyone remember Candid Camera? A phenomenon called, “change blindness” shows how we often mistakenly recall a person asking for direction when they are switched in real world interactions. Regrettably, these false memories or stories frequently have tragic repercussions. The Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes reports that 73% of those cases overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. In other words, the victims involved pinpointed the wrong person nearly 75% of the time. According to Mlodinow, police know without a doubt that about 20 to 25% of the time a witness will identify the wrong person in a line up simply because the police know that person was a “plant.” With such routine inaccuracies, relying on eyewitness identification is extremely unreliable.
The implications of how our faulty memories affect our day-to-day lives are huge, but most of us remain unaware. Recent studies verify that false memories can be implanted by suggestion to subjects, and can literally help shape new attitudes and preferences. Examples include what kinds of food to eat or avoid, alcohol consumption quantity and preferences, and even voting preferences and how we remember political events. Each of these show how memories are susceptible to being altered by changing what it is we think we remember. Photo doctoring is an especially powerful way to plant false memories—as is asking the “right leading question” at the right time. For the most part, the new memory is more accepted when congruent with prior attitudes and evaluations, but that they can be so easily altered is worthy of deep consideration. As an article about memory in Slate Magazine says, “The scary part is that your memories have already been altered. Much of what you recall about your life never happened, or it happened in a very different way.”
The good news in all of this is that if our memories can be adjusted without us knowing about it, can we also work to alter them in a proactive and positive way to rewrite our past and then create a better future. Why not? The book Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson Ph.D. is convinced that with practice and focus we can effectively train our brains and “sensitize it toward the positive” on a regular basis. Using several techniques described in his book, he also says “taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experience in implicit memory.” Again with effort, it is possible rewrite our experiences and memories in ways that bring us more peace, happiness and meaning.
Obviously the more difficult and traumatic the memory the more challenge we will face in changing them. But the work of people like Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, considered the premier memory doctor in the world, proves that completely unreal memories can be planted when we never question what it is we think we experienced—especially when the new “memory” comes from someone we trust. Yet in the end, at least according to Slate Magazine, Dr. Loftus believes the primary purpose of this innate ability is to “conveniently adjust” what we think we remember in order to “promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression.” So perhaps it’s advisable to use it to heal and help, rather than perpetually indorse or reinforce a tragic past.
Each of my sisters and I have the choice, yes the choice, to decide the quality of our past and our memories of our parents. After all, every person’s life is usually filled with a collection of both good and bad experiences. What we individually choose to focus on, highlight, and repeatedly tell others, and ourselves, can either lead to a happier life, or reinforce the past negatively. Even when it’s not easy, it is important to remember it is possible.
Obviously this short article cannot offer all the studies available that prove that our memory is largely a fictional story that we choose to believe. Still, it is also good to keep in mind that there are techniques that can help rewrite and alter those stories, and the book Hardwiring Happiness is one way to start. What is SMART and essential above all, is to acknowledge that we are the authors of the story of our lives and that the book is never ever, ever finished as long as we still walk the earth. Until then, let’s keep rewriting the story until we achieve the happiness and peace we seek.