Why Memory Isn't Reality (And How to Use That to Your Advantage)

The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali's famous painting, 'The Persistence of Memory,' conveys how our memories are often a little distorted.

Mike Steele/flickr

Most of us assume that what we remember is accurate. Events are recorded in our brains just as they happened and recalled each time in exactly the same way.

But what if memories don’t have an objective reality, but are instead something your brain automatically recrafts to support your view of yourself and your life story? And what if you could use this automatic process to improve your life by changing your life story to one you like better — and allowing your brain to reassemble and realign your memories to match your new identity?

It sounds far-fetched, but scientists are finding increasingly that memories are far more malleable than we imagine. And by shaping them more positively, our memories can help us live happier, more productive lives.

Making memories

According to author and Inc.com contributing editor Geoffrey James, neuroscience shows that when you remember something your brain works like a storyteller, reconstructing events by assembling bits and pieces (some unrelated to what actually happened) so they fit with what “makes sense” to you at the time.

In other words, your mind is creating the memory, as well as adding in feelings and beliefs that it will use to construct the memory next time it comes up. So, for example, if you feel down and remember a sad day, your brain will fill in details that color the memory and make it even sadder the next time you remember it. Conversely, if you’re feeling positive and remember a fun day at the beach, your mind will embellish the memory so it’s even happier in the future.

It’s a constant feedback loop where memories are being reassembled in real time to jive with who you believe you are based on past memories. But the process is more far-reaching than just a single memory, says James. It impacts your entire outlook on life.

So someone whose memories show that the worst usually happens may form a negative life story where all memories (even good ones) grow darker with time. Eventually, with repeated recall, past offers of help might even be misremembered as attempts to sabotage. On the flip side, someone who recalls events as mostly positive is likely to have an upbeat life narrative and memories (even bad ones) that grow rosier over time.

Manipulating memories

The notion that memory is elastic — and fallible — may be hard to swallow and even downright frightening. But few can deny that what we remember is often less than reliable. Plenty of people suppress things they’d rather forget, and more than a few court witnesses have remembered crime details incorrectly, sending innocent people to prison. Even our seemingly innocent propensity for constant photo-snapping has created a new type of memory misfire, dubbed the “Instagram effect.” According to a recent study in the Journal Psychological Science, we don’t remember real-life experiences as well if we whip out our cameras and snap. Watch this video for more about photo-taking and memory.

And what about actively erasing, altering and implanting memories? Certainly Hollywood has explored memory manipulation in films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” about a post-breakup couple who undergo a procedure to erase their memories of each other, and “Inception,” about planting false memories during the dream state. But these memory-bending movies aren’t just sci-fi creations; they’re closer to reality than we think.

For instance, science shows that memories can be implanted via psychological means. Just have a trusted authority figure slip in a false memory when discussing real-life events and apply social pressure. As this video shows, it’s scarily easy to convince someone they did something they didn’t do, even something criminal.

Technologies and pharmaceuticals can also be used to implant memories, not to mention enhance them (say, in cases of Alzheimer’s) or wipe out them out (in people with post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating phobias). This scientific overview in Brain Research Bulletin details several intriguing methods, including optogenetics, transcranial stimulation, cued reactivation during sleep and use of drug therapies.

One of the newest memory-embedding tools is the laser beam, developed by Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu of MIT. Watch this TEDx Talk for more on how the pair were able to identify brain cells in mice that encode individual memories and laser them to implant a memory that never occurred.

New-reality hack

Which brings us back to how we can use the plasticity of memory to improve our lives. According to James, you don’t need lasers or special technologies to actively edit memories to your benefit. You can do it yourself just by changing your life story to something more positive and letting your memories follow suit.

For instance, you may regret becoming an artist instead of a high-paid lawyer like your parents wanted. As noted earlier, when you revisit memories associated with that early decision, they’ll reinforce the “I missed my chance” narrative. However, if you turn that around and decide your career decision was exactly right, you’ll notice your memories also change to reflect and reinforce your new story of “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

The idea is to use this process to let go of what’s not working in your life and create a better version. As soon as you begin envisioning the person you’d like to be or life story you want for yourself, notes James, “Your brain will automatically transform your memories so that they power you forward in the direction that you want to go.”