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neuroscience

Can You Trust Your Memory?

Author: NeuroGym Team | August 11, 2016

How reliable are memories?

According to neuroscience, not so much.

When we store memories we often miss details, and when we recall memories, we distort them a little each time. Once a memory's in there, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between reality, and the bits our brain fabricated.

Multiple studies have even shown how simple it is to implant a “false memory” in someone’s head. It appears that the same brain regions light up whether you’re actually witnessing something, or you’re visualizing something in your mind’s eye. If you can remember seeing something, you believe it — even if you only “saw” it in your brain.

Why is this so interesting?

Because many of our nonconscious decision making processes rely heavily on memory. Rather than slowly ponder about whether or not you should do something, your brain prefers to quickly consult your past experiences (it uses up less energy that way).

This has some perks, and some downsides.

The Bad:

What if you recall your past experiences incorrectly? Or what if your memory is tainted by your emotions, either in the moment, or at the time it’s recalled?

(Apparently, that happens regularly.)

Memories (even fake ones) really only become a problem if they lead you toward bad decisions.

For instance, strong negative emotions tend to leave lasting impressions -- even if the memory of the actual event diminishes. This causes all sorts of fears, or aversions to certain activities or situations.

If you endured an embarrassing dance recital as a child, your memory may have blown the emotion out of proportion. Maybe no one even noticed that you tripped a few times, but in your young mind each misstep is magnified, and it went down in your long-term memory as the most shameful day ever.

Memories like that hang out in the background, and can keep you from dancing, even into adulthood. Even if the real thing was much less eventful, it’s possible that you remember the dance recital as humiliating.

That’s the type of memory that will cause you to associate “dancing” with “humiliation and pain.”

If that happens, you’re very likely to avoid dancing whenever possible…

All because of one pesky memory.

The Good:

According to Dr. Julia Shaw, author of “The Memory Illusion,”  rewriting our memories comes with some benefits.

She says:

“Without the flexibility that comes with our memories we would also be unable to learn and would always be stuck with old memories. Instead, we are able to rewrite information when better information comes along. We can update our memory banks regularly. We can learn from our mistakes.”

Memories exist to help us make better choices in the future. We don’t need them bogged down by detail, or difficult to overwrite. They guide us in a more general sense.

Here’s why that’s great: you can use tactics like visualization to influence your future behavior. Since your brain holds onto imagined events just like real ones, you can actually form new “memories” of yourself achieving your goals.

If you picture yourself receiving an award you’ve always dreamed of, and you feel the emotion that goes along with it, your brain will start to believe it. If you do that again and again, your brain will accept that as reality.

It’s much easier to take the right actions when your brain is aligned with your goals.

Here’s The Takeaway:

You can’t believe everything you remember.

We often rely on our memories like they're files saved on a computer, but memories are actually much more ephemeral.

They aren’t totally untrustworthy — just take them with a grain of salt.

In the grand scheme of things, memories exist to serve you. They help you remember the lyrics to your favorite song, the directions to your house, and whether or not it's a good idea to follow a stranger into a dark alley.

If you notice a behavior or thought pattern that hasn’t been serving you, try thinking about the root cause of the behavior. Do you have a negative memory hiding up there and influencing your decisions?

If the answer is yes, try this: instead of playing the negative memory, imagine the complete opposite happening.

If it’s something like the embarrassing dance recital, imagine yourself dancing and really enjoying it. Maybe you’re with friends, or you’re listening to your favorite music. The point is to build new, positive memory associations around “dancing.”

If you imagine the new, happy dancing scene over and over, you may eventually replace the negative associations with positive ones.

Cool, right?

Can you think of any old memories holding you back?

Let us know if you've tried visualization in the comments below!

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About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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