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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 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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