kaleidoscope memory

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I heard a talk by a neuroscientist from Stanford last week. He was talking about his work figuring out the basic unit of memory in our brains. In the course of his talk, he brought up some things that are useful for anyone to know.

First off, your memory is not a record of your life.

You notice a portion of what goes on around you, you interpret it and store that interpretation with what you experience.

The part of your brain that stores it (the hippocampus) is the same part of the brain that orients you in space (and time). Because of that, when you have an experience your brain stores what each of the senses noticed, the emotions you were feeling, and your interpretation of the experience. Besides that, the hippocampus locates that experience in time and space.

That’s a bit to chew on.

A less complicated way to think about it is that it stores your experiences like a 3d movie done from one camera angle.  Your brain stores the sound in one place, the visuals in another, the feelings in another as a sequence of frames.

If your brain does not have enough information to create the frames, it just makes something up as filler.  That means, even if you remembered what your brain stored accurately, it would probably not be what happened.

When you remember something, your brain has to go to each of the places it put things and grab the pieces it placed there and reassemble them. It won’t always select the right pieces and will fill them in with other memories if it needs to.

Memories Are Like Imagination

The professor and I talked briefly about an exercise we do with our students where we plant a false memory in them.

He added an example of seeing someone who says, “I saw you at Bill’s party.”

You reply, “I don’t remember you there.”

He says, “Yes, I was there, remember we talked about the chances of the Dodgers winning the pennant this year.”

That is the kind of conversation you have had many times with your friend, so you can easily imagine that it happened at Bill’s party. You must have just forgotten about it. Then you start to remember.  Later, you run into Sarah, and you mention seeing your friend at Bill’s party.  She says, “I didn’t think he was there” (he wasn’t).  You insist he was.

Another interesting thing he pointed out was that every time we remember something, we recall it in some new context. We may have a different emotional response, interpret it differently, embellish it, or more.

Now, the memory is the initial memory plus the new stuff.  Therefore, we can’t remember the original memory. It’s gone forever.

This has practical consequences.

If we go over and over a memory feeling anger and negative emotions, each time we do, then that memory will have more anger and negativity associated with it.

Minor slights might become massive assaults. Minor missteps might become life-threatening failures.

You Can Recreate Your Past

He pointed out that the reverse is true. We can reinterpret our past. Significant assaults can become minor slights. Life-threatening failures can become minor missteps. He told me that people were using this approach to overcome trauma.

The ancient Stoics pointed out that “reality” is not what happens to us but how we interpret it.  So, it is not new.

How you look at things is up to you. But, it is nice to know that the freedom to interpret things in ways that are the most useful is backed up by science. You are going to be wrong no matter what. You may as well do it in a way that’s pleasant.

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