Typewriter with the words "Once upon a time..." on it

Studying memory has changed my life. It’s also opened my eyes to some common illusions we all weave for ourselves (and I include myself in that statement!), particularly when it comes to the concept of a “life story.”

We all build up narratives about who we are and, more importantly, why we do what we do. The story is always cohesive and makes some kind of intuitive sense (at least on the surface). This is a 100% natural tendency, and we all do it (both subconsciously and consciously).

Everyone loves a good story - that’s obvious by the sheer popularity of fictional movies, novels and all the other commercial storytelling that’s out there. And yet our favorite stories are the ones we weave about ourselves from the complex fabric of our memories.

The problem is that our memories are reconstructive. What this means is that we don’t perfectly recall what’s happened to us in the past - instead, we actively reassemble our memories every time we recall them.

Our brains essentially gather up all the little bits of information we remember, then tries to glue them together. We have imperfect encoding and recall, and your brain has the tendency to “fill in the blanks” whenever it comes up short during recall.

When we do this, we’re interjecting all kinds of distortions that reshape what we remember to the point where our memories are nowhere near reality. We don’t necessarily do this on purpose - it’s just how our brains work.

As an example, consider the mood congruence effect. Mood congruency is a feature of our memories that makes memories that match with your current mood more accessible than memories that do not. So if you’re feeling depressed, you’re much more likely to remember depressing past events.

We also don’t remember most of what we experience, so we constantly cherry-pick our memories for things that stand out to us. Whatever was salient in the past is what we’re most likely going to focus on, and that affects how we view what’s happened to us.

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The implications of all this reconstructive behavior are substantial. For one, it means that we don’t accurately remember the vast majority of what we experience. Our memories can be reinforced by videos or pictures, but when left to our own devices we have a tendency to twist memories into unrecognizable shapes.

Secondly, it means that our tendency to come up with a cohesive narrative to explain who we are and why we behave in certain ways is fundamentally flawed. We’re basically making it up as we go along, and what we make up can often be used to justify maladaptive habits.

For example, if you’re anti-social, you can likely come up with lots of “good” reasons for why you are that way. You can recall people who wronged you, unpleasant rejections and any other events that you can use as a crutch to prevent yourself from tackling this problematic set of behaviors.

My message to you is this: the story doesn’t matter. What matters is what you’re doing right now, and whether it’s good or bad.

Rather than telling yourself reasons why you’re doing certain things, evaluate the impact of your various behaviors and ask yourself if they’re positive. Don’t think about how your parents treated you, or how embarrassed you were when you were rejected by that girl or boy when you were in high school.

The bad things you think about that allow you to give yourself an out probably weren’t as bad as you thought they were, and chances are that you’re viewing them through an extremely biased point of view anyway.

Let. It. Go.

Break the Chains

This isn’t an easy task to accomplish, and I don’t think anyone ever completely gets away from that little voice that constantly builds your narrative. But, with practice, you can get away from using your inaccurate memory as a way to justify behavior.

Here’s the drill: next time you find yourself feeling bad about a situation, don’t think about how your “self” contributed to it. You’re probably wrong, and it’s not helpful.

Instead, just say “This was good or bad because it had a __ impact on the people around me.” Then ask yourself how you can do it differently next time (or do it more, depending on what type of behavior we’re talking about).

It might seem like a small change, but taking a deep breath and thinking this way about your actions can have a substantial impact. I’ve definitely improved my ability to get along with my fellow human beings by doing this as often as I can.

Give it a shot, and let me know how it works out for you by contacting me here.

-Ace