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As Promised: How Your Lousy Memory Can Be Your Best Friend

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memoryMy father, who is 90, has been complaining about his lousy memory for at least 50 years.  Or at least that’s how I   remember it.  I could be wrong.  As any anyone who watches lawyer shows knows, eye witnesses are unreliable because memories are unreliable.  Even though we think that remembering something is like playing back a film clip, it’s not, at least not according to what I’ve been reading lately.  According to Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist who leads the Schiller Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, we re-create those memories.  It’s like the pieces are all there, but we have to put them back together to retrieve them, sort of like reassembling a puzzle; more like a video editing session than a YouTube video.  Scientists referred to that piece we think of as a finished film clip as consolidation, because for years the prevailing opinion was that the memory was cemented into place.  But most anyone who has been interrupted while trying to remember a phone number realizes how fragile new information can be; it hasn’t passed from short term to long term memory yet.  Still, I for one was buying into Hollywood’s rendition of recalling the past.

Except part of me always sort of questioned it, because I know my memories aren’t that exact!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how many times in the course of trying to remember where I put something, like lost car keys, I have found myself envisioning them in places I’m fairly certain they’ve never travelled, and if I continue that activity long enough, I have no solid ground on which to stand.  I couldn’t tell you which places I’d actually seen my keys and which ones I hadn’t.  And yeah, maybe I really was remembering a time when I had seen them sitting on a shelf in my fridge, but when was that, and where did I live then anyway?  Did it ever happen?  The whole memory is a muddled mess.

Memory is extremely unreliable.

The study of mnemonics should be a clue.  To remember things in order, mnemonics teaches us one good technique is to anchor them to other things that are already in order, like a tune that we know or a path we’ve travelled a few thousand times.  It’s rather like habit stacking: link what you are trying to remember to what you already know and it can be easier to retrieve that memory.

An absolutely fascinating article in The New Yorker last year (God, how I love the Internet!) described the work of Daniela Schiller and several others disputing the long-held paradigm of memory-storage as consolidation.  It also cites the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus whose experiments clearly documented that false memories could, in fact, be implanted.  I’ve often wondered myself how many of my early memories are mine and how many of them were birthed from my imagination upon hearing of an event from other family memories.  Especially after studying hypnosis, NLP, EMDR and reading Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria in college some fifteen years ago and realizing how malleable the mind really is.

So what does all of this have to be with embracing bad recall?


Even though Eckhart Tolle has been espousing the importance of the present moment in his Power of Now, even though A Course in Miracles tells us the past doesn’t exist except in our minds, we act as if it is solid.

It’s not.

We recreate it every time we “remember.”

Which means, we can recreate into whatever we want.  Because, we already recreate it.  We retell the story over and over.  We put it together in the same way so often that it seems pretty solid.  Great!  Unless it’s not.  My question is: is that recreation serving us or not?

I personally am excited by this.  Anyone who knows me well knows I have latent neuroscientist inclinations and I’m a metaphysician.  So whenever the scientists compile data that proves what the metaphysicians have long taught, I get psyched.  Because when it comes right down to it, isn’t the real question: how can I use this data?

Anthony Robbins has been teaching folks how to do this for years, using feelings and imagination to empower his students. When a memory is unpleasant, you imagine it in on a black and white TV, smaller and smaller and dimmer and dimmer.  If there is something you want more of, you imagine it in full IMAX theater surround sound, more and more vividly.  Repeat either of these activities repeatedly and before you know it, you’ve taken the sting out of the flubbed presentation or bolster your confidence on the back of one successful firewalk.

As Abraham would say, it’s about the emotions.

For years, I’ve been repeating (perhaps in an effort to convince myself!) “Make up a different story.”  Because truly, it’s up to you how you tell the story; how you want to remember it.  It’s lesson 2 from A Course in Miracles: I have given everything I see… all the meaning it has for me.

So why not use your memory to mold it into something else?  Why not change the meaning?  I for one am excited by the prospect.  New Year.  New story.  Works for me!


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