Ever had that thing where you and a sibling or friend were both at the same event, but each of you remembers it completely differently?
Recent research doesn’t just hold the key to why we can find ourselves at loggerheads over a shared experience; it offers a new superpower we can all use.
It turns out that memory doesn’t – as we thought – work like a recording on a hard drive, or files in a cabinet.
Rather, each time the brain goes back to access a memory, it rewrites it.
Whether we’re telling someone else the story or simply going back to recall it, our brain is working a bit like a monk in a scriptorium, who can only read the handwritten copy he’s making.
And while that monk might work at supersonic speed, he’s writing by candlelight with a blotchy quill, and sometimes he thinks he can make the story more exciting by amping up the drama.
You can see how all kinds of tiny errors and distortions might creep in, since each time the brain recalls a memory it’s looking not at the original, but at the latest retelling – the monk’s copy.
And it’s doing the same thing again – rewriting it, like another monk doing the same thing. With only a few retellings, those distortions can multiply so in the end, our memory is a bit like the old Telephone Game, where the final version is nothing like the original.
Of course it feels real to us, because we’re inside it. But the good news is that once we know that this is how memory works, it gives us power – not just to heal the past, but to free us in the future.
Because the brain uses our memory to predict what’s possible in the future, so any limiting belief is likely to be linked to our memories. And that means knowing memory is slippery can open some doors we might have thought permanently shut.
When we revisit a painful memory, we can let ourselves off the hook a little, and perhaps choose not to poke at the pain – since that is likely to make the NEXT recall even more painful. Be kind and gentle with yourself. And maybe give yourself some wiggle room by remembering that memory, however powerful it SEEMS, is merely your brain’s most recent retelling of what happened.
But that’s not all.
For example, if there is a painful memory associated with the past, you can write a new version of events. The point here is not to deny your memory; but rather to play, light-handedly, a game of “what if?”.
What if that school bully had been nice to you, or been moved to another school?
What if there had always been plenty of money in the bank, or food on the table?
You can get extra oomph for this exercise if you mix in “truth” with the new version, so you’ll want to include some real positive memories into the blend.
If there was a difficult relationship, write about how delightful it was.
Go into rich detail, describing how that other person showed their love and support for you.
If you can remember any actual moments of love or affection, include those to help you get some traction on this new version of history.
Ignore any parts of the “truth” that you didn’t like, while you’re playing this game.
You’re daydreaming up a new history – and while it will never wipe out the original memories, the new history will greatly reduce its power to trigger pain.
Make this a daily exercise, and you’ll be amazed by how fast your brain recreates that old memory under a kindlier and less painful light.
Everything in your memory is – at some level – merely a story being told by your brain. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. And, as Shakespeare might have said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
Is there a memory you wish were better? Why not write the new one today?
And if you find yourself struggling with this or needing a little support to get the ball rolling, feel free to reach out for support.