Squishy Memories: Part III-Corralling The Mind

Stan Goldberg, PhD

In some ways, our memories are like a herd of cattle on an open range; trying to go in whatever direction they choose. Unless they can be controlled and understood, their recall can be destructive.

In Part I of this series, I wrote our mind’s creation of memories is unreliable since it has a hidden agenda.  In Part II I offered reasons why we should trust memories only a little more than we do a politician running for office. In this last part of the series, I’ll suggest some ways of living with memories while minimizing their negative effects.

Memories and Circumstances

The brain is not a copying machine. If it were, the recall of a past event by two or more people would be identical—but it rarely is. And if identical, it wouldn’t change with each new retelling of a story—but it usually does.

We see both types of changes when relatives recount the same experience differently. We see it when one soldier remembers the blowing up of his transport truck as an exciting event, and another develops PTSD.

I believe the circumstances surrounding the experience (needs, fears, history, etc.) provide an initial distortion of what happened. I think it’s true for PTSD, a terrible break-up, a humiliation, or a long-standing family feud.

Truth and Needs

Even though there are differences in recounting the past, they are often attributed to one person telling the truth and the other fabricating it. It’s difficult for the brain to objectively store and retrieve emotionally charged events without shading them.

Instead of basing accusations on what one thinks occurred, it might be better to begin with understanding why a person views an event in a certain way. For example, a husband and wife had different accounts of something he said at a party. She thought his comments were humiliating. He thought his comments were humorous. Their disagreement was one factor leading to their breakup. A person who was at the party and tried to mediate thought what the women heard wasn’t exactly what her husband said. But she also disagreed with the husband’s version.

What to Do With Memory

Before basing a decision on what you remember, first identify the circumstances surrounding the event. The wife in the above example felt vulnerable because of an inappropriate comment made by a relative a month prior to the party. The husband had been chided by friends a few days prior to the party for allowing his wife to veto a planned fishing trip they were planning.

The history of each was significant in how each responded, the storage of what the husband said and subsequently its retrieval. Real life decisions—-a divorce-—became based on less than the objective recall of events.

As you enter an argument about something that happened, stop for a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

            1. What were the circumstances surrounding the event?

            2. How is the recalling of the event helping my mind achieve homeostasis?

            3. How is my version reinforcing my needs?

            4. Why does the other person’s account differ from mine?

Although there are differences in the recall of events that may be objective or knowingly fabricated, most are based on distortions created by our history and current needs. If you’re arguing about the past, focus on how the event made you feel, rather than whether your account of it is more “accurate” than the other person’s version.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


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