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Science Explains Why Our Memories Can’t Be Trusted

Science Explains Why Our Memories Can’t Be Trusted

“I remember where I was when…” A phrase so commonly used when describing our recollections of, often tragic, events. And yet, this common expression has allowed psychologists to trace the unreliability of narratives that human beings place so much faith in; that of major events in our own lives.

A group of researchers, looking at the way our memories of personal experiences shift with time, began an investigation in 2001 days after the 9/11 attacks. The psychologists from more than a dozen universities across the US asked 2,100 Americans to detail their experience of the tragic day.

Questions included where they were, who they were with and how they reacted to the news. The volunteers were questioned again after a 1-year, 3-year and 10-year interval. It was found that forty percent of the respondents changed their recollections of the event markedly with time. Curiously the stories underwent the greatest change when only a year had passed after 9/11. After this the volunteers tended to tell the same false story in the decade that followed.

“You begin to weave a very coherent story,” says study author William Hirst, PhD, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

“And when you have a structured, coherent story, it’s retained for a very long period of time.”

The findings[1] reveal what an important part our inner narrative of events plays, whilst also exposing our memories as being worryingly unreliable. Not only are we able to believe false stories – something that has been proliferated over the U.S. elections with false news – we also have a striking tendency to alter recollections in our minds as time progresses.

Our memories are a story constantly retold

Why do we do this? Well, our minds are constantly building a narrative that forms an integral part of who we are, and our brains simply don’t work like a cloud storage.

As Hirst says, “Human memory is not like a computer, [it] is extremely fallible.”

An example of this is the way we have a propensity to believe something that is false as long as it fits comfortably within a narrative context. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel prize winner, gives a great example of how we’re always searching for causality, reframing events to fit into a context and how we’re ready to believe things as long as they fit fluidly within a context.

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he details two headlines that Bloomberg News ran on the day Saddam Hussein died. Both were focused on how the major event had affected bond prices. One headline read, “U.S. Treasuries Rise; Hussein Capture May Not Curb Terrorism.” Half an hour after this headline broke, bond prices fell and a revised headline was released; “U.S. Treasuries Fall; Hussein Capture Boosts Allure Of Risky Assets”.

We need an anchor to ground our memories and we’re willing to change or distort our recollections of the events surrounding it as long as it works in service of the wider narrative. This, Kahneman claims, is actively happening at a subconscious level with our own memories. Further proof of this is the fact that in the 9/11 study, 80% of volunteers recalled event information that happened on the day accurately. They remembered the anchor more accurately than their own personal experiences.

We may be unknowingly manipulating our memories to fit within the wider context of major events

Psychoanalyst Ken Eisold points to The New York Times’ report that “False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence.” False confessions can be motivated by intimidation tactics, or in order to avoid painful interrogation tactics.

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As Eisold says though, “all memories are motivated. It is just a matter of degree.”

Our minds may be recollecting things falsely, spurred on by subconscious motivations[2]. The research can be important to allow us to understand the proliferation of false news and how human beings are so susceptible to believing false information and being swayed by propaganda and advertising.

Further advancing the notion that our memories are surprisingly unreliable is a recent study that used genetic engineering to activate the hippocampus – a brain region that is key to memory formation – in mice. They were able to make one set of mice falsely believe they had stepped on part of a maze, triggering an electric shock[3]. They tested this against another set of mice that hadn’t had the false memory implanted. The mice with the false memory avoided the spot whilst the others didn’t.

The study highlighted memory’s important function as a guide for future behaviour, whilst again showing how prone it is to external suggestion.

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Exercise our brain to keep our mind sharp

Your brain isn’t a muscle, anatomically speaking, but psychologists and neuroscientists suggest exercising it as if it were. Certain activities can lead to a healthy functioning brain and better memory recollection as well as boosted brainpower.

Recent studies have shown that a balanced diet and regular exercise play an enormous part in keeping the brain healthy[4]. Not only do they keep mental illness at bay, they can also enhance cognitive ability. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts and kiwis, for example, have long been highly rated for their benefits to the brain. They help to fight mental disorders whilst also improving learning and memory functions.

Rest is also extremely important[5]. Scientists believe that REM sleep plays an important role in memory development, whilst stress has a terrible effect on the brain[6]. Our memories may not be as reliable as once thought but we can still take steps to keeping a healthy functioning vessel for our personal recollections.

Reference

[1] APA PsycNET
[2] Unreliable Memory, Psychology Today
[3] Memories can’t always be trusted, neuroscience experiment shows, Los Angeles Times
[4] Good Diet, Exercise Keep Brain Healthy, Live Science
[5] Sleep, Learning, and Memory, Healthy Sleep
[6] Why Stress is Deadly, Live Science

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Christopher Young

Freelance Blogger, Writer and Journalist

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Published on November 2, 2020

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

I get my best ideas when I’m not trying—when I’m zoning out in the shower or taking my dog for a walk. Suddenly, something I’ve been racking my brain to figure out seems to just come to me. It may seem like magic, but it’s actually just my unconscious mind coming through for the win.

What Is Conscious Thought?

Let’s start by explaining what the unconscious mind is not. I want you to think about what your dream house would look like if money were no object. Then, think about where you were the first time you can remember feeling joy.

That voice in your head that was talking you through those two tasks is your conscious mind. Simply put, any thought process that you are aware of (conscious of) is part of your conscious mind. I’m using my conscious mind as I sit here and write this article.

One of the major brain centers for conscious thought is in your prefrontal cortex. This is on the outside of your brain behind your forehead. Some of the downsides of conscious thought are that it’s energetically taxing and finite. What I mean is, your conscious mind can only think one thing at a time, and it burns through a lot of glucose to do so.

Try to figure out the square root of 2400 while creating a grocery list. You can skip back and forth between those two tasks, but your conscious mind can’t wrestle with both simultaneously.

Also, think of a time when you were utilizing your conscious mind for an extended period. Maybe you were in classes all day or busy with a tough work task late into the night. You were probably exhausted after such intensive and extended conscious thought.

What Is the Unconscious Mind?

That’s why the unconscious mind is such a valuable resource. It isn’t energy taxing, and it is virtually limitless. Your unconscious mind could be trying to figure out thousands of problems right now.

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The downside is that you aren’t conscious of any of it until you are—until your unconscious thoughts make it into your consciousness.

That’s why it behooves us to figure out how to create the right environment for our unconscious minds to flourish.

System 1 and System 2 Thinking

Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow gives us another way to think about the difference between the unconscious and conscious minds. Kahneman describes two different modes of thought called System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is quick, emotional, and intuitive, while System 2 is slow, methodical, and logical. System 1 works in tandem with System 2.

For example, if you see someone looking at you, your System 1 might assume they are upset with you. Then, your System 2 takes over to process information and discern what might actually be going on at that moment.

Kahneman warns us that System 1 and System 2 are metaphors for how the mind works.[1] It would be an oversimplification to try to explain specific regions where System 1 and System 2 thinking takes place. However, System 1 and 2 is a powerful way of thinking about different modes of thinking. Kahneman calls System 1 automatic thinking and System 2 effortful.

The idea of focus is key here. In a famous experiment, participants were told to watch a video and count how many times people in the video passed a ball to each other. This required their System 2 thinking. However, the intense focus required for this experiment caused most people to miss the fact that while the people in the video were passing the ball, a person in a gorilla suit slowly made his way through the shot.

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How to Make Your Unconscious Mind Work For You

Focusing too intensely can cause us to miss details and solutions better suited to our unconscious mind. That’s why we sometimes have to stop and chill out, instead of forcing solutions.

Here are five ways to make your unconscious mind work for you.

1. Manage Stress

Your unconscious mind is not a big fan of you being stressed out, overworked, or overwhelmed. Managing stress is important if you want to be able to come up with those effortless “aha!” ideas.

Imagine that you’re under a strict work deadline. Your anxiety is compounded by the fact that you’re worried about losing your job and that your entire family relies on your income. This is an incredible amount of pressure that makes it tough for your unconscious mind to break through with that effortless creativity.

Think back to the video where the person in the gorilla suit sneaks through all the people passing the ball around. Most people are so focused on the task at hand that they don’t see the most interesting part of the video. Stress and pressure can lead to a kind of tunnel vision that works the same way. Our attention becomes so narrowly focused that we aren’t able to zoom out and connect the dots between broader patterns and ideas.

That’s why it’s crucial to find ways to manage stress. I recently spoke with humor engineer Drew Tarvin who explained the 4 R’s of managing stress.[2]

First, try to reduce stress by eliminating stressors from your life. This might mean finding a less stressful job or leaving earlier for work.

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Next, reframe the stresses that you can’t eliminate. Reframing isn’t pretending that your stress doesn’t exist; it’s trying to think differently and change your perspective about stressors that do exist. This might mean looking at the bright side or trying to see the bigger picture. If I don’t want to quit my stressful job, I can try to reframe by thinking more about the money I make or the times I feel fulfilled at work.

The third step is to relieve stress. This means finding ways to relax throughout the day. You might try meditating or watching funny cat videos on YouTube to clear your head and relieve your stress.

Finally, refresh. Find ways to take more extensive breaks where you completely de-stress. Pre-COVID, this might have meant taking a vacation to a beach somewhere. But now, you’ll have to get more creative as you find ways to put your phone down, forget about work, and come back completely refreshed.

2. Take Breaks

Part of stress management is taking breaks. But taking breaks is also an important part of tapping into your unconscious mind.

When I’m trying to figure out how to structure an article or put together ideas for a larger project, I schedule in time to completely put the project down. This allows my unconscious mind the freedom to come up with some truly novel solutions, and unlike conscious thought, it feels effortless.

This is that experience of the light bulb suddenly going on while you’re showering or driving to work. When you aren’t focused on anything in particular, your unconscious mind has the quiet it needs to bubble up to become conscious thought.

So, take breaks. One strategy is what’s called the Pomodoro Technique, which is when you stop to take a five-minute break after every 25 minutes of work. This allows you to recharge. Plus, by systematically easing your intense focus, you are giving your unconscious mind opportunities to come up with some truly novel ideas.

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3. Get Creative

The unconscious mind is great at effortlessly seeing patterns and finding interesting solutions, but for this to happen, it needs some inspiration. That means creating and consuming as much creativity as you can.

Pick up an artistic or creative hobby. Paint, write, build, or dance. It’s also helpful to consume creativity. Go to museums, read poetry, and walk in nature. Taking in creativity with your conscious mind will give your unconscious mind all the inspiration it needs to be able to do its thing.

4. Don’t Force It

The most crucial takeaway about the unconscious mind is that you can’t force it. You can struggle and strain all you want when you’re using your conscious mind, but the unconscious mind can only bubble to the surface when you aren’t trying so hard.

Think back to that phenomenon of having an aha moment while you’re showering or walking your dog. The unconscious mind is better able to break through when you aren’t focused so intensely on whatever it is you’re trying to solve.

So, relax and give yourself some time and space. That’s when your unconscious mind is most likely to breakthrough.

5. Play

Finally, don’t forget about the power of play. Play is inherently fun, and a playful mode of thinking allows your unconscious mind more of a chance to innovate. If you turn your task into a game, you’ll be more relaxed, have more fun, and collaborate better with your colleagues. That means you’ll be more likely to riff and get to a more creative “unconscious mind” solution.

You can also add play throughout your day to tap into this freer, less constrained kind of thinking. Turn your commute into a game, play hide and seek with your children, or join a local bowling league. This will help you get reacquainted with your childlike sense of joy, wonder, and curiosity—all key ingredients to nurturing and fostering your unconscious mind.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with and utilizing your unconscious mind is very different from doing so with your conscious mind. Tapping your unconscious mind is a technique that, when done right, can help you get what you want by untapping your potential.

Featured photo credit: Katerina Jerabkova via unsplash.com

Reference

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