"I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride and remains inexorable. Eventually--- memory yields.” Nietzsche
Memories are reconstructions of the past—not perfectly. We recall relevant pieces, and a basic storyline, but must reconstruct a coherent, smooth flowing story. We pull bits and pieces from storage but build the new thought with current knowledge. With new experiences and beliefs, we conveniently fill in the holes. Our memories self-justify current conclusions. Our memories, however, are not indisputable facts—memories are fallible. We rarely scrutinize memories; we just accept. The reconstructed memories become part of reality, defending and justifying faulty conclusions.
We explain everything. This morning I was driving behind a woman smoking a cigarette, after her last drag, she flicked the butt out the window; I immediately thought, “Smokers always litter.” My mind created an explanation to her thoughtless littering—immediate and automatic; no census, no study, no control group, just a conclusion. Explanations establish order, sorting usable data, explaining an otherwise chaotic world. Explanations create structure for understanding cause and effect. “I feel better when I eat less saturated fat, exercise and sleep regular hours.” The explanation to my feelings motivates future action, providing a link between a behavior and final outcome, creating a recognizable beacon to navigate life, avoiding pain or securing desirable rewards. When explanations are constructed on accurate associations, our behaviors based on those explanations propel us towards the desired futures.
Accurate appraisal of the many facets of experience, identifying important elements and dismissing meaningless elements is the hallmark of wisdom. The experience then becomes our teacher. Most appraisals occur unconsciously. The events and the supporting cast of causes sort themselves and leave their emotional mark, without scrutinizing quality control. Assessment flaws and inaccurate memories complicate future behaviors based on past experience. New experiences, instead of exposing erroneous conclusions, are sanitized with faulty self-justifying memories, giving legitimacy to the lie. Wisdom from experience is diluted and lost. For example, after several emotional arguments with our spouse, we blame the disconnection on our partner’s selfishness. The act of determining a cause (whether accurate or not) inserts influence over memories. Under the colored filter of selfishness, interpretations of the past events change. Cute and endearing memories morph through the new context of selfishness, all we recall is the badness from the past.
Adjusted memories validate the erroneous conclusions. Warped memories serve misguided and self-benefiting conclusions; we fail to recognize patterns in failed relationships, financial disasters, and missed opportunities. The faulty memories soothe discomfort by denying personal involvement, supporting misdirected blame, and creating amicable explanations. With discomforts soothed, and failures dismissed, we pave the way to painful repeats.
We can’t create a perfect memory retrieval system. Memories are subject to biological constraints; we must learn to effectively live with the imperfection. By understanding the shortcomings and the tendency to mold memories, we will be inclined to skeptically examine them for faults; instead of blindly accepting. When ruminating over being wronged, we must acknowledge the natural intrusion of self-righteousness explanations that conveniently pass over more obvious 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, engage the volitionary brain to halt the thought pattern, purposely re-examine conclusions, seeking additional facts, maybe, after all, you did do what you remember not doing.