Each time we recall a memory, we change it subtly, altering the small details, and doing so unknowingly.
Over time, these small details can end up changing a great deal of the original memory. They can become so distorted as to be reminiscent of the telephone game — each time the message is transferred, some small detail is misheard.
Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval. — Donna Bridge
Think of Brian Williams, the news reporter who told people he’d been in a helicopter that was hit with an RPG, when in fact it was the helicopter they were following that was hit.
His reputation has been shattered, yet he’s sticking to his story that this is how he remembers it. Sure he might be lying, but he might also be telling the truth, succumbing to “misremembering.”
I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago, I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft … I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another. — Brian Williams
This is an extreme consequence of misremembering, for most of us the effects of such errors will pass by unnoticed and believed. A Times article wrote earlier this year that 40% of Americans misremember 9/11, who knows what else has gone awry.
We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. — Daniel Kahneman
Imagine the effects of false memories on the world around you. Not only are some of your memories misguided, but everybody else does not properly remember their past either. Going beyond single person perspectives, this is particularly dangerous within the law and education systems.
Thankfully today we have cameras everywhere, to capture every seflie, cat, nice meal or beautiful sunset, so that these details are recorded on something more reliable.
But I feel that, while the negative effects of this come easily to mind, there are plenty of benefits that we could find. Let’s put aside possible solutions to our misremembering and instead see how we might embrace it.
Memory altering is already present as part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a treatment for post traumatic stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, drug abuse, and other disorders. It works by altering people’s behaviors and attitudes.
Our associative memory is powerful. For many of these disorders that CBT aims to alleviate, a central problem is the pervasiveness of certain images and thoughts that come to the mind easily and often.
A memory needs to be triggered by another thought/memory (these are the same thing). — Ray Kurzweil
Do you know what it’s like to have a song remind you of your childhood? Or, for a while after your girlfriend broke up with you, did everything seem to remind you of her? Association is what our minds do, it’s how our thoughts pass through us, one trailing another in a constant stream of thought.
Bad experiences are more memorable than good ones, and nothing is more important than it is when we are focusing on it. In a horrible cycle, bad events can make us think of our shortcomings, and thinking of these shortcomings worsens the emotional state.
… in constructing a model of your own mind, the model alters the thing that it depicts. The model is both a perceptual representation and an executive controller. It is a description and an actor. — Michael Graziano
It takes strength to break a negative cycle, and an understanding of the underlying futility of it.
We need to put greater emphasis on the positive, to alter our memory so that the good memories come to mind, those that reinforce our strong and intelligent side. We need to reorder our most closely kept memories to resemble our most desired reality.
2. Get New Frames
You don’t only have the ability to reorder memories. You can also frame each experience in many different ways.
It’s difficult to remove yourself entirely from a perspective that you use often, but changing your view is possible and very effective.
Some examples of the power of different perspectives:
- People that believe intelligence is subject to growth are more likely to seek out challenges and see failure as a road to greater development.
- People that see willpower as being endless possess greater self-control than those who think otherwise.
- People who are optimistic are more healthy.
What’s the main obstacle in people framing situations with a better perspective?
I’m sure your underlying personality traits are important, but I also think that the specific memories that come to mind when we think about these things are also relevant.
It goes back to the association game your mind plays — by taking past situations of the same valence and using them to reinforce the idea that this is who you are and this is how you behave.
“My willpower is limited, just yesterday I was so tired I couldn’t help but grab a beer.” “That investment fell through, why should I be optimistic about this other one?” “I failed math in school and now it’s required for my job, I guess I’m just not good enough.”
Those associations are based on memories, and as we know, those can be changed. We can change the way we frame our past and find the silver linings, we can see what we did right rather than wrong, we can see how we’ve improved, and we can see the lessons we learned.
When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself. — Carol Dweck
By focusing on the right past, we’ll start to see a brighter future.
3. Become More Interesting
Naturally some of us don’t get to experience the wonder and joy of world wide travel and the extreme dare-deviling that others do. Without this pool of experience to draw from, our story-telling suffers.
Sure, you could try to brighten up something boring by adding your flair and charisma, but you know in your heart that it can’t compete with your friends all expenses paid ski trip to Switzerland.
You shouldn’t submit yourself to this. There is a way out, and it doesn’t require the exorbitant price tag of going for ski trips or jumping from planes. It’s to change your past.
Naturally, we forget small details of our past, but our minds also want cohesion. If you start telling a story, it’s likely that you’ll be filling in forgotten gaps with on-the-spot made up details to help tie what you do remember together.
We will fill in details that may not be available or that we may have forgotten so that the story makes more sense. — Ray Kurzweil
Change those details to make the story more interesting. Use the truthful “I was driving through an intersection” to lead to the false “… I almost hit a guy on a bike.”
Suddenly that boring Sunday drive has some life. Perhaps that’s a little too far, but the key is small details that give your past some oomph, nothing extreme or over the top is needed or recommended.
Hypothetical events that are imagined vividly can seat themselves in the mind as firmly as memories of actual events. — Make It Stick
I get that this point might upset some people, but hey, if it isn’t hurting anyone and serves for some good banter, why not?
4. Relentless Confidence
Optimism is a powerful antidepressant.
The reordering, framing, and awesome-ing of your memories should help you to pick your head up and feel more secure in yourself. But I’d like to go further than changing the way you see your past, I’d like to change the way you perceive yourself.
Confidence is an attribute of the same variety as happy, lazy, or funny. They’re things we ascribe to people because we see features of these attributes often enough. There are always other cases — for instance a funny person talking about something serious, and being totally unfunny about it.
We ascribe a characteristic to someone when we see it often enough, but “often enough” is subjective. It depends heavily on how easily related memories surface, and to what degree, something they do differently in each of us.
People have a natural tendency to search for confirming rather than disconfirming evidence. — Richard Thaler
We also ascribe these characteristics to ourselves. If we were to think about times when we’ve been so hilarious as to cause people to spit their drink from their noses, then we’d probably see ourselves as the life of the party. If we’re instead left with all the occasions we sat in silence and stared blankly at the wall, we’d ascribe ourselves another attribute.
We know about our mental states using the same tricks and inferences that we use to reconstruct the mental states of other people. We tell ourselves a story about ourselves. — Michael Graziano
You can pull out all the stops here. Strengthen the memories that confirm your higher abilities, and weaken the stray anomalies. Look at your past and see the successes, and note how quickly and confidently you picked yourself up from failure. Fill in the missing gaps of your knowledge with examples of your calm and intelligence.
Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders — not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks. — Daniel Kahneman
To sum up:
- Negative experiences can be weakened, while positive experiences strengthened.
- You can frame your old memories in a positive perspective.
- You can fill in the gaps of your memories with small yet interesting elements.
- You can change how you perceive yourself by ascribing positive attributes.
You are the sum of your actions, but thankfully those aren’t set in stone.
A Guide To Changing The Past
- Focus on Framing. Remember that there is always more than one way of looking at every experience. There is always a negative and a positive, no matter how distant the memory, find the silver lining. Examples:
- It made me who I am today
- I learned a great lesson…
- Take a Growth Mindset. The brain is malleable, it changes with every experience, every thought. You can and do change in each moment, and you can make it for the better. The evidence suggests that believing you have unlimited self-control makes you stronger, and believing that your intelligence can grow makes you more likely to seek out challenges that lead to growth.
- Reinforce the Great Experiences. You want the good memories to come to mind easier and faster than the bad. When you hit a tough patch, instead of visions of your failures coming up, you’ll see moments of your greatest strengths, you’ll see the dude or dudette that can do anything.
- Write a diary, only include the positive memories and experiences.
- Document how you felt, what you were thinking, why it was good.
- Write down complements you’ve received.
- Put all of the above somewhere easily accessible so you can always look back on it.
- Change the Right Things. If you need to alter a memory, you should only change small details that have a large impact. We all have regrets and we should learn from them, not ignore them, but there are often slight changes we can make to help us. Think of the way white lies are often used so as to save someone a little pain, embarrassment or otherwise, and do the same for yourself.
- What you were thinking or feeling at the time of an experience. Eg: from “frightened” to “calm,” or from “I’m an idiot” to “I can do better.”
- Add a tiny experience that shows off some of your confidence or other characteristics — “I nailed my first speech in 3rd grade.” “I was good at art in my younger days.” “I broke my arm, but I never cried!” “I kicked a soccer ball through the windows of a moving car…” Well maybe not the last one.
- … And think of them often. The strength of the memories is reinforced if you recall them often. Those memories will come to mind easier when you would usually focus on the negative. Recall the positives, think of the lessons and the growth, rerun the white lies and interesting stories. Forget about the things that ruin your mood or hold you back.
Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. — Make it Stick
What Happens If Someone Calls Me Out!?
I’d say you’ve probably taken it too far. Perhaps the change was too dramatic, or the event was very recent. Otherwise the person calling you out is just as likely to be misremembering as you.
Either that or you’ve been caught on tape. If that’s the case you’re on your own.
Perhaps I’m giving the tools that large populaces of people are going to use to become a group of compulsive liars. I hope that’s not (entirely) the case. I’d like to see these tools being used to help people overcome the roadblocks to positive-growth: Bad experiences, bad mindsets, and a lack of confidence or motivation.
Remember — if you can — our memories are altered each time we remember them whether we do it consciously or not, so you may as well do it consciously.