Are you sure that's what happened?
Memory accuracy and hacks
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Some years back, on a drive from LA to Morro Bay, a line from a poem I learned when I was probably seven made its way to the surface of my mind. It got stuck in a loop and wouldn't leave. I dug around until, by the end of the four-hour drive, I recalled the poem in its entirety!
Ask me now… I couldn't tell you which poem, let alone a single line from it. But I remember it happened. I remember the feeling of trying to shine a light into the darkness of time, looking for the dusty words hiding there. Pulling them out one by one and stringing them together into clumsy sentences until they fit right, rhymed, and unexpectedly revived forgotten scenes from my childhood.
So, where did this poem come from? Where did it go? Is it still somewhere in the folds of my brain, tucked away and waiting for another long drive to tantalize my imagination?
Meanwhile, my car keys must stay in the same place, or I'll never find them. Once, after a few days of searching, I discovered them in the freezer. Don't ask…
You all know about short-term/long-term memory and laugh about "old" people remembering things from 30 years ago but forgetting what they had for lunch, like that joke about this elderly couple sitting in the living room, watching TV. The husband tells the wife, "Hey, I'm a gonna go make something for breakfast. What do you want?" She responds, "Scrambled eggs, please." He disappears into the kitchen and reappears a few minutes later with toast. She couldn't believe it! "What’s the matter,” he asked. “I told you I want waffles,” she angrily yells at him.
In case you think this only happens to the elderly, I am here to tell you, it happens every day in your relationships, regardless of age. You say something. You think you remember what you said. Your partner hears something. They think they remember what you said. Ultimately, the conversation goes totally differently, with each one claiming that the other is mistaken. Also, each one thinks they are right, and the other person forgot!
Thus, many of “kitchen sink” arguments bloom into their full glory, resulting in some hurt feelings at the least. What’s a “kitchen sink” argument, you ask? That’s the one that starts with something like “…but you said…” or “Why didn’t you….” or, “Why do you always…” and ends up with the person recalling everything you did wrong for the entirety of your relationship, everything but the kitchen sink, as they remember it. And that’s exactly the problem. “As they remember it.”
Likely, you don’t remember it the same way. Even more likely, neither of you remembers it the way it actually happened. That’s because sometimes, what happens and what you think happened are completely different things. We tend to remember how something or someone made us feel, not so much the objective truth about it. And how we feel depends on so many factors, like the ones I’ve talked about in previous writing – perception, cognitive biases, misunderstandings, personal history, etc.
As much as you believe your memory is accurate, scientists will tell you otherwise. That’s why they consider eyewitness testimony to be unreliable. Also, in law enforcement, detectives know that if someone gives too many details about something, they are less than truthful since most people only remember in broad brush strokes things they saw once or twice, even less so in passing. So, unless someone took an actual photograph or a video, the details of who is who, who did what, and how it happened are, at best, very fuzzy.
Memory is more accurate when people make a real effort to remember something deliberately. Memorizing texts, music, dance choreography, facts, formulas, the route on a map, learning a language, grammatical rules, driving rules, etc. But also deliberately trying to remember events and previous experiences. You get the point.
The Bible passed from one person to the other, thanks to those who memorized it. Before photography, GPS, and Google were invented, people committed more to memory than we now have to—at least, more of the things we now outsource to technology. Cicero tells the story of Simonides of Ceos, who attended a banquet in Thessaly. The guy was lucky. The building collapsed just as he stepped out of it. Numerous people died, getting mangled beyond recognition in the disaster. But Simonides recalled who each one had been based on where they were in the space just before the collapse. Later, he received credit for creating a system of mnemotechnics, the art of developing and exercising memory, supposedly inspired by this tragic but lucky event.
You know some of these techniques. Think of “chunking.” The brain loves to categorize things, and by doing so, it makes it easier to remember them. I used this technique during the memory test the NIH tortured me with in Baltimore a few weeks ago. The test administrator read out loud 16 items on a “shopping list.” Very monotonously. Annunciating. She asked me to repeat them back. On the first try, I started at the beginning, but who can remember 16 items? I think I recalled about half, but in the process noticed that things were either fruits, tools, spices, or clothing. The second time she read it, my brain automatically put the words in the appropriate categories, and I could recall all but a couple of items. By the third time, I remembered all but the “tangerines.” Damn it! I knew there was one more fruit, but my brain wasn’t spitting it out.
Then she read out a second list. It consisted of 16 different items. She read it twice. Then she asked me to return to the previous list and recall the items. No problem, but still no tangerines! I got 15 out of 16 and a headache. Finally, she read out random items asking me to identify which list they came from, the first or the second. When she said “tangerines,” the light bulb went on bright in my head!!
If you think this sounds easy. I hate you! Also, I don’t think I will ever forget the tangerines! They’ve moved now to long-term storage!
Chunking also looks like your phone number. First is the area code, then the first three digits, and finally the last four. Even if you usually can’t remember ten numbers in a sequence, you can probably remember three chunks of numbers.
Acronyms will help you remember things, too. Remember PEMDAS? If you do, you’ll solve all those Facebook math challenges for geniuses that cause people to argue over the results. For example, how much is 5+7(3 x 2)-(10 : 2)+9-6. Count yourself lucky that I didn’t put an exponent… Put the answer in the comments below! 😊
If you can’t remember your passwords, make one that’s an “acrostic.” That’s the first letter of each word in a phrase you can’t forget, like a line from a movie or a song. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” = FMDIDGAD. Now alternate the caps and the lower-case letters. If you really want to get fancy with your password, replace some of the letters with a number or symbol (I = 1, a=@). You get the point… Acrostics work not just for passwords and even if you forget the word “acrostic.”
Sometimes, experiences are so exciting or significant that they etch themselves in people’s minds. But even then, memory plays tricks on us. Scientists have demonstrated that when people anticipate an event in the future – how wonderful or terrible it will be, they overestimate the intensity of positive events and underestimate the intensity of adverse events. In other words, we are terrible at risk assessment. Hence people dive off cliffs and ride fast motorcycles. Sadly, humans prefer to remember more the bad and the negative and remember those more accurately than the good and the positive. So, don’t get angry at your friend who can’t recall all the nice things you did for them but always brings up that time you let them down. You are probably doing the same.
However, this mental bias could be a reason for so many depressed people to run around looking for meds when all they may need is a gratitude journal and recalling the good times. Take it one step further. Finding positive meaning from a negative memory leads to an increase in positive emotion. So, how about that break-up? Yes, it was hurtful. Yes, you felt angry, sad, etc. But what’s the silver lining? Perhaps, you now know what personality traits to avoid and what you want in a person. Perhaps, now you have more time for friends and hobbies. Perhaps, you’re saving more money now and working on your financial security. Perhaps, you learned valuable insights into yourself.
If you fail to take stock of what has happened to you in a negative situation, you will likely repeat it. When similar events occur some time apart, you will remember them even more.
On the one hand, this is a hack you can use to enhance your memory. When you repeatedly learn and recall information over a longer period, you will remember that information better. This helps you study and learn new skills. On the other hand, if you keep picking the wrong partners and reliving the same drama, you get really good at it. We gravitate towards what’s familiar and what we’re good at because it’s easier than re-learning how to do things differently and gaining new skills. Reliving negative situations gives your brain more negative stuff to remember, and it makes you feel even more depressed. I’ll be Capitan Obvious here and tell you to avoid this scenario. LOL
All this just to say, next time you find yourself arguing with someone over what happened, what you did and what they said, remember to remember that memory is probably playing some tricks on you. It probably doesn’t matter exactly what happened as much as it matters how you want to walk out of this argument and what you want your relationship with this person to look like in the future.
Like a diplomat, use more “would you,” “could you,” and “perhaps,” and less “you should,” “you must,” and the middle finger.
Hope you enjoyed yourself and will remember this article's good parts. Forget the rest.
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