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“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.” Corrie Ten Boom

Our memories seem unchanging and solid. Moreover, they help make us who we are. Many people consider themselves to be the sum of their memories. And yet, strong evidence exists that suggests our memories are highly complex, malleable, and extremely fallible.

The ordinary person makes faulty self-attributions in memory all the time

We formed different memories around the same events or, rather, gave our personal meaning to our experiences

I used to enjoy playing chess when I was a child. My rival was almost always my elder brother, who managed to win EVERY SINGLE time. Not surprising, he was – after all – one year older and “definitely more experienced”. As I was getting better at chess, so was my brother and nothing could change that.

It was only many years later that I got to reality-check my memories. It turns out that my brother remembers me winning… to his great annoyance. Probably not every time, but enough for this memory to stick, and serve as motivation for further improvement. I, however, still struggle to remember a single time I’ve won.

As it turned out, we formed different memories around the same events or, rather, gave our personal meaning to the events. These memories didn’t necessarily reflect the reality but nonetheless, were playing a crucial part in forming our future worldviews and the image of self.

And yes, these personal meanings were also products of the already pre-existing image of self and the belief system. In other words, we created our subjective reality and our personal memories.

Our memories of events are interpretations of the past rather than picture-perfect records of it.

We all do that all the time.

As in the example above, our memories of events are interpretations of the past rather than picture-perfect records of it. We often make up our memories to suit our vision and image of self. However, what might have been important for us at the time the memory was formed, might not be very helpful now. Yet, we still carry these meaning with us and accept their status quo without questioning.

What might have been important for us at the time the memory was formed, might not be very helpful now.

Why memory is not reliable

Referring to the book by Vexen Cratbree Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths”: We all suffer from systematic thinking errors which fall into three main types: (1) internal cognitive errors; (2) errors of emotion, perception and memory; and (3) social errors that result from the way we communicate ideas and the effects of traditions and dogmas.

Some of the most common errors are the misperception of random events as evidence that backs up our beliefs, the habitual overlooking of contradictory data, our expectations and current beliefs actively changing our memories and our perceptions and using assumptions to fill in unknown information. These occur naturally and subconsciously even when we are trying to be truthful and honest. Many of these errors arise because our brains are highly efficient – rather than accurate – and we are applying evolutionarily developed cognitive rules of thumb to the complexities of life.

So why would anyone want to revisit their past?

Leave your emotional baggage where it belongs and move on

Just imagine what would happen if we could consciously revisit, reality-check our memories and critically evaluate beliefs we formed about events.

In the case of my earlier example with chess, I now have a choice to believe:

  1. I was the worst chess player in the world
  2. I am too self-critical
  3. I have a poor memory
  4. I chose to remember only losses because of the errors of perception
  5. Losing in chess has taught me to always strive to be better

The list is endless and I am free to pick what belief serves me better today.  Each belief would influence my present values, beliefs and priorities in a different way. I would also most likely come up with a different action plan if I were to decide that ‘I am the worst chess player’ compared to ‘I am too self-critical’.

Revisiting past memories and new learning

While the laws of physics currently prohibit us from travelling bodily through time, we nonetheless have a means of travelling at will to either our personal past or our personal future. It’s called mental time travel.

We all can revisit our past and gain the important insights and learning. We can also let go of redundant limiting beliefs and negative emotions and form new empowering beliefs about ourselves. Just imagine how great it would be to leave this emotional baggage behind and make a step towards your success. 

Below is one simple yet very useful Timeline technique

With your eyes closed imagine yourself floating up out of your body, so that you are above your imaginary timeline, looking down on it. Now begin moving in the direction of your past, above your timeline. Keep moving back into your past until you feel that you are at the exact time of the particular experience you decided to revisit.

You can stay as far away (dissociated) from this event as you feel comfortable while you observe yourself in that moment. Ask yourself what you might have missed then? What useful learning you could take away from this situation. And is there anything else? You can now float back to your present and notice how different is your recollection of the event.

The recent study suggests that episodic future projections may help us to alter the course of our future. Think of all the opportunities you can seize now that you have empowering and positive learning to rely on. Imagine yourself in near future, with new learning, new belief system, new insights. How different does your future seem now?

What will you do next?

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