The mind is fascinating isn’t it? Composed of countless processes and functions all designed for our survival. A massive role of the mind is cognitive memory. Everything happening is registered and accessible in the memory storage room to be retrieved when needed. It all begins when we are young and told or taught about the world and our perceptions, from that reality forms and is interpreted (aka programmed or conditioned).
As you might imagine, memory is a massive library compiled of tons of information, labeling everything encountered with inherited meaning and large webs of associations painting our reality. In everyday life we heavily rely on memory to function. We constantly and automatically use our memory as a source to pull out information from the past to form an understanding or reference of what’s occurring in the present. Therefore our memory unit is fundamentally influencing how we relate, experience and act in the world. But memory is not always accurate. In fact, it can distort, trick or mask present reality without getting caught. This in turn, can lead to faulty perceptions, emotions and behaviors.
The question is: can you call out your memory’s bluff?
To plead my case I’ll only present a few examples of how memory has potential to pull the wool over our eyes. I’ll begin with the “small stuff” first and leave the major bluff for last.
Firstly, when we are children we’re not able to fact check anything told or taught nor are we mentally developed to draw objective conclusions. This is both regarding the external world but also information concerning ourselves. Most children are like sponges absorbing information and especially relying on adults, taking them for their word. No pressure, but what children hear early on will undoubtedly affect the perception of everything. Our childhood sets the stage for how we view the world, ourselves and act regardless if it’s correct or not.
As early as the encoding stage, memory is prone to errors. I can recall in my student days reading articles about how our mood, emotions and stress alters our memory at the initial registering. Depending on how we feel we code into memory differently. The same goes during retrieval of information. When recalling past occurrences our mood has implications on perception. Thanks to our emotional state, remembrance will differ and likely to give some sort of ripple effect.
Memory functions as a self fulfilling prophecy. It seeks out proof in the present as support for what occurred in the past. Say for example a certain negative belief formed in life. Memory can act as a filter by sifting through and providing evidence in a present situation, highlighting all which confirm the belief and disregard that which doesn’t. The element of reinforcement also expresses itself by pulling same or similar data to back up beliefs. Say for example a negative belief is triggered by something external, the memory will do us a “favor” by lining up proof from the past to back up the claim (the negative belief).
Filling in gaps
Memory can also attribute meaning incorrectly or when there is none. This is by filling in gaps and connecting imaginary dots, creating an illusion in line with past recollections. Especially in diffuse situations we tend to quickly restore to memory to draw conclusions in the present and act accordingly, faulty or not.
Have you ever experienced someone interpret a situation in a far fetching or deluded way? It could be a sign of a ghost (memory) from the past showing itself and casting its shadow on a present situation. Projection is when something internal (usually something uncomfortable) skews how we interpret the present external. This typically occurs unconsciously and is rooted in past memory. Projection can cause a person to respond to a present situation as if its a past memory playing out when in reality the two scenarios are completly unrelated.
It’s also possible for us to have false memories. A false memory is when a person recalls either untrue events or in a different manner than what actually took place. False memories are typically the result of receiving information and forgetting the origin of the content, so the individual unknowingly relates the memory to themselves. False memories can also be planted. If you’re interested in knowing more about planted false memories, I’d strongly suggest reading about the Gary Ramona case.
As humans we tend to act identical to how we have before, when facing the same situation. The memory guides in the present “same situation” automatically because it’s the safe route. We also apply the same tactic, or patterns, in similar situations. Humans have copy paste tendencies when situations resemble each other on a surface level. Generally, we generalize thanks to memory.
Let’s move on to the greatest bluff…
The cover up
The main purpose of this post is to point out the highly subjective nature of our memory, its fragility and how maneuvering it can be. I suspect there’s an assumption all accumulated during a lifetime is objectively true. But slapping on labels to everything and everyone with attached associations and stories is like unknowingly wearing sunglasses coloring our sight. Sunglasses are great in certain regards but only gives a tinted version of reality. Memory can disguise life by recycling old perceptions. How about removing the blinders now and again? And perceive the present raw.
When facing a novel situation or object we get glimpses of non interference with what is. However even then, the survivalist in us will impulsively attempt to find any reference seemingly similar from the memory bank, to make sense of it. Children are experts at viewing clearly or unbiasedly because their memory isn’t jammed up (yet). We can learn a thing or two from them! Have you noticed how excited and curious they are about small or regular things?
This is not to claim memory is all bad or harmful. The memory system is complex, convenient and effective, making sure we don’t need to relearn from scratch all the time. When we see a cup we don’t need to discover what it is everytime we see one. Instead, we instantly label it a cup, give it meaning and create a context around it. The same goes with everything (unless actively aware). However I don’t think it’s a good idea to fall into a “memory rut” where we entirely live from memory. Especially since memory isn’t as reliable as it might appear and it blinds happenings in the present.
Now and again during the day, why not experience life as if it was the first time? I especially enjoy doing this with regular activities such as going to the store, on the bus, looking out the window, on my daily walk in the woods or with animals. I also find it fascinating interacting with people I’ve known forever, but with a clean slate, erasing all history . You begin discovering new things every single day. It’s astonishing! Nothing is ever “same old same old”.
Interference from the past also clouds current self perception. There’s a consensus regarding the link between memory and identity, where some (me included) believe memory and sense of self are entirely connected. From this standpoint individuality is attachment and identification to the past. It’s baffling once you think about it. If our sense of self arrives from the past could that be blocking us from discovering who we really are? And if we erase all that’s been, what’s left of “us”?
I challenge you to look at yourself in the mirror with a fresh set of eyes for a couple of minutes. Our persona is heavily ingrained in memory so staring into the mirror will bring forth all kinds of thoughts. Let the mind chatter settle and keep observing the reflection. I won’t spoil anything but feel free to share your experience.
I propose keeping in mind (pun intended) memory’s blinding influences on everyday perceptions, actions and relations. Not only should one be aware of memory’s role, effects and defects, but also not allowing it to spoil the present. Let’s all actively create moments, where we live from a blank space and discover the aliveness in everything and everyone.