It was a haunting interview – Clive Wearing, the brilliant musician who lost his memory, spoke of what life was like without any recall of life events:
“One night 20 years long – with no dreams, that’s what its been like, just like death. No difference in day and night, no thoughts at all. And this has been totally painless, not actually desirable is it. Its like death. If you have no sense of pain, you have no sense of any kind working either”.
Tragic. It also made me realize the importance of memory in our lives – the role it plays in giving meaning to our lives and providing a binding force to the fragments of experiences that would otherwise fall apart within seconds. It creates a coherent narrative of our past and our anticipated future, culled from events, real and imagined to give us a sense of self.
The stories we spin
Indeed all our decisions and behaviours are a result of the story we put together from fragmented notes to either empower us or sometimes unfortunately to make us victims of our circumstances. Have you ever noticed pausing before a big decision and then realizing you are not capable of taking on the task? It is the life story you spin that ultimately determines your actions.
Remembering Self vs Experiencing Self
Our brain takes in information from many streams and interprets them to determine its course of action. Memory plays a key role, not only in the subconscious perceptions that are stored in the deeper recesses of our minds but also the more accessible conscious recall that we have far more control over.
It is said that the remembering self is very selective in what it takes away from the experiencing self. It sheds aside the vast percent of daily events and experiences and latches onto the extremes. However, the 2 extremes are not equally weighted. To illustrate this, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioural economics describes the experience of someone who had been listening to a symphony of absolutely glorious music. At the end of the recording though, there was a horrible screeching sound that totally ruined it for him and was all he could take away from the experience. Yes, the negativity bias that we’ve all inherited as a species has done well to ensure our survival – it is failing us though in our efforts to thrive.
Taking in the Good
Rick Hanson has a beautiful strategy that he calls Taking in the Good which allows us to hang on to the positive moments in life before they are lost on us. It is by savouring the positive moments in our lives, however small or mild, for a mere dozen seconds or so and linking them to other similar moments that we can ensure that our positive states go down memory lane and turn into the long lasting neural traits that strengthen us and empower us to take energized action.
The Teflons and the Power houses
This is of course easier said than done. Some of us have been endowed with a cheery outlook on life where we tend to see the world through rose-tinted glasses and let the negatives shed off of us like water on Teflon. But for the rest of us, negatives stick to us like Velcro without us even being aware. And then there are some of us whose beliefs of self are positive and empowered thanks to the perceptions and interpretations we formed in the earliest years of our lives. But again, for the vast majority of us, our parents were far too busy attending to our daily survival needs and stopping us from things that got us into trouble to work on building a storehouse of positive belief systems of the self. Does that make us any less empowered to steer our lives into upward spirals of growth and flourishing?
If anything, to the contrary. Not only can we consciously Take in the Good and ensure we build a positive storage of memories that invariably influence our decisions, we can also ‘listen’ to the voices of memories, both old and embedded and newer and critical that chatter away in our heads and tell us we cannot take action because we are not good enough, smart enough, likeable enough or capable enough. And with a nod of acknowledgement, we can go ahead and take action any way.
Now that takes courage – and isn’t empowerment all about courage?
Now I’d love to hear back from you! Do your memories hold you back in the face of challenges? Are there beliefs that you find hard to shed off?