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Memory: Reconstructing the Past
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2015
Memories aren't perfect. They form to fit our beliefs, limiting learning and encouraging justifications.
Memories are reconstructions of the past—not perfect representations. We recall relevant bits and pieces, and possibly a basic storyline, and then reconstruct the past into a coherent, smooth flowing story that is applicable in the present. We retrieve stored information but manipulate and adjust the data to comfortably fit current knowledge. We construct our perception of the present to create a new reality, blending the flow of data through our senses, bodily reactions, and learnings from the past. We subjectively construct the moment by conveniently filling the holes of unknown with predictions based on personal histories—experienced reality is subjective. Our memories justify current conclusions. Our memories are subjective, not indisputable facts. We rarely scrutinize rascal memories; we just accept them as fact. Error-filled memories are resurrected to fit the present, defending and justifying our faulty conclusions and predictions.
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With consciousness, we articulate experience—the outer happenings, the internal affects and the responsive behaviors. This morning, as I drove to work, I observed a woman flick a cigarette butt out the window; I immediately thought, “Smokers always litter.” My mind immediately created an explanation of cause for this women’s thoughtless littering; no census, no study, no control group, just a conclusion—smokers litter. The explanation supported my observation and reasonable conclusion.
"I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.” Nietzsche
Our explanations establish order, sorting usable data, giving order to a chaotic world. Our labeling of cause-and-effect structures observations to assist with future encounters. We utilize data gathered through our senses to refine predictions, and act more appropriately to achieve goals—conscious and unconscious. For example, “I feel better when I eat less saturated fat, exercise and sleep regular hours.” The explanation tying the action of eating less saturated fat, getting more exercise, and recovering rest to the positive feeling motivates future action (continued healthy eating, sleep and exercise), providing a direction to avoid pain and secure a desirable reward. When our explanation is accurate, behaviors based on those explanations propel us forward. The explanation has value.
We can’t create a perfect memory retrieval system. Memories will always be subject to biological constraints; to succeed, we must learn to effectively live with the imperfection. By understanding memory shortcomings and our tendency to mold memories to fit our preferred conclusions, we can suspiciously and skeptically examine memories for faults; instead of blindly accepting them as fact. When ruminating over being wronged, we can intervene before we are sucked into a familiar destructive cycle by acknowledging the intrusion of self-righteousness explanations that conveniently ignore personal contributions.
We can’t escape biological limits, nor should we ignore them; but with thoughtfully acknowledgement, we can navigate through the limitations, addressing shortcomings that impede growth. When memory yields, confirming sweeter explanations, we can halt the thought pattern by purposely re-examining conclusions, seeking additional facts, and maybe discovering we actually did what we don’t remember doing.