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STOP RUMINATING ABOUT THE PAST: Your memory of it is Probably Wrong Anyway!

Accepting the possibilities of false memories; being open to others' perspectives

You’re talking with a friend about a trip you took with them a few years ago. You recount a moment during that trip in great detail, right down to the soft blue button down shirt you were wearing. Your friend doesn’t remember it the way you do. Who is correct? You find a video clip during that trip and play it. You both turn out to be wrong. How does this occur?

Our brain is a very complex organ. We all know it controls everything that regulates our body. It’s basically a computer. And, like computers, the brain only knows input AND like computers it can receive incorrect coding or even a “virus.” It has long been realized by the psychological community that emotion has a definitive connection to memory. Like the tide washes over the sand, our emotions wash over our brains impacting our perception of an event. We are more likely to remember an event if there is a strong emotion attached to it. Have you ever or have you ever heard someone say, “I can remember what happened 20 years ago, but I can’t remember what I had for dinner. Most likely, the memory they can recall from long ago is because the event had an emotional attachment to it. When a strong emotion occurs during an event, that can skew the reality of what actually happened.

Another reason memories can fool us is that we each have our own style of remembering things. We each have our own perception of reality and perspectives about what is happening. Our perspectives and emotions are a very large part of how we see reality and therefore, how our brains remember that “reality.” Usually, if there Is an extremely intense emotion during an event the memory can be recalled with extreme clarity. However, this doesn’t mean the memory is correct per se. See the paragraph above ;-)

Let’s say a Pit Bull is running down the sidewalk. Person A was terrified by a dog trying to bite them when they were a young child. Person A has also heard horrifying stories about Pit Bull’s viciously attacking people for no reason. Person B is a dog fanatic. Person B also owns a Pit Bull which puts them in the category of Pitti lovers who knows them to be sweet, wonderful dogs. Because of both of their individual perspectives they will most likely see this simple event differently. Person A may start screaming and run away feeling like the dog is about to attack them. Person B may see the dog as a friendly playful dog who is running over to play. When in reality the dog and owner don’t have a clue about Person A or Person B’s existence. When or if each person recalls this memory they will most likely remember it in contrast to actual reality.

Sometimes, we remember something with such clarity, only to find not only are we remembering it incorrectly, it actually never even happened. This can happen simply by hearing about something over and over again through different venues, like social media, talking with a group, or watching the news. What has come to be known as the “Mandela Effect,” was introduced to the world in 2010 by a “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome. She called it the Mandella Effect, or false memories shared by multiple people, because she was talking with some colleagues about her memory of Nelson Mandella’s death in the 1980’s. The people she spoke with also remembered his death, even remembering speeches that were made. In actuality, Nelson Mandella didn’t die until 2013.

People often misquote movies due to a false memory. I know I always thought the quote of Clint Eastwood was “Do you feel lucky?,” Punk. In actuality Dirty Harry asks a question and then follows up with “Well do ya?, Punk.” You might think, well that’s easy to not remember the exact wording of a quote, but it became very real in my mind that this is what I heard. When I actually talked about it with my brother Scott, a die hard Clint Eastwood fan, he let me know that most people misquote that scene. So, me hearing other people repeating the wrong quote is in part why I remember incorrectly. Scott actually new the lines leading up to that quote and the quote itself! This is only one of many quotes, lyrics of songs, titles of movies… that are “mis-remembered.”

I recall a memory from many years ago. At least I think I do! Someone came up to me and said “Who did this?!“ I responded, “Uh, you.” “No I didn’t. I would never do something like that!” There were convinced that they didn’t do it, but I know they did because I watched them do it. They knew I was there, but they in a hurry and scrambling which is what caused them to take the action they did. They weren’t lying about it or trying to get away with anything, it‘s just that this person wasn’t in the habit of doing this particular thing. So, their brain convinced them that they didn’t do it. Once I reminded them of the details of the event - “Ooooooh ya. Now I remember. I did do that.”

The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant." - Salvadore Dali

Another reason for false memories is that when an event occurs it immediately becomes a short term memory and needs to convert to a long-term memory while we sleep. This process can be interrupted for a variety of reasons and lead to a false memory.

I used to work as a paralegal in a personal injury law firm. If you watch legal shows you probably heard, “Objection. Leading the witness.” This is a sustainable objection because humans want to be liked, fit in, or be helpful. So if someone asks us a question like, “Isn’t it true that you saw them walking toward their car at 10 p.m.?”, even if it isn’t true some people will say yes. They aren’t lying, but due to their emotional state and personality they may believe it actually to be true.

“Blessed are the children with the boon of innocence that creates a shield of forgetfulness around them to keep them from being tormented by bad memories and grudges.”

Anurag Shrivastava, The Web of Karma

I often joke about God blessing me with the gift of forgetfulness. In all truthfulness it is a blessing. I am able to forgive people more easily because I don’t really remember that they did something wrong. This is the foundation of my happiness quotient. I believe it is my brain’s coping mechanism to find joy and happiness. It just weeds out most of the bad things which allows a brilliant sparkling light to shine on the rest of my world. Quite literally, people will be surprised that I’m talking to a person that has wronged me. They’ll ask me if I “remember that person doing such and such.” Like an elephant who’s been kicked in the head one too many times, I forgot the event until they remind me of it.

Bottom line? Just be open to possibilities. Be open to the possibility you may not be remembering things exactly as they happened. Be open to other people’s perspectives as they may cause them to remember an event differently than you do. Be open to accepting that your experience is not the same as someone else’s experience. Just be…open! After all wouldn’t we want someone to do the same for us?

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