Once a good friend sent me a text, asking me to message him when I was available. I remembered it the exact opposite. In my memory, he told me he would message me when he was available.
He didn’t message me. (Obviously.)
I got very angry. Excessively pissed off. Enraged, actually.
Finally I decided to text him to give him a piece of my mind. I was really going to let him have it.
Fortunately, as has happened so often in my life, I decided to take just a second to make sure that I was responding to the right text.
I reread his original text.
That was a lot of anger over something that literally never happened.
This is why I prefer emails and texts to phone calls. In a conversation, it’s easy to think you said something you didn’t. I can’t fool myself, though, when I look back through old emails.
This second example was actually my first experience of realizing my memory is influenced by my emotions, desires and identity.
One of my favorite movie scenes involves a woman in a black swimsuit who is approached by a man in a white bathrobe after she gets out of the pool.
Except that’s not how the scene goes.
The man is the one swimming. And he wears a black swimsuit. The woman is in a white bathrobe, and she is the one who approaches him.
When I discovered neuroscience, I was actually not surprised to learn that we don’t remember things the way they actually happened. Recalling a memory is not like bringing up a file on a computer. Emotion infuses every action and every thought we have.
As a result, every time you recall a memory, your emotions may change it slightly. If you are feeling powerful emotions, then you will dramatically change the memory simply by recalling it.
I’m not going to go into any more detail on the science. That isn’t my goal and it isn’t my specialty. Instead, here are six rules I’ve learned to repeat to myself as a result of realizing the ways that memory tricks me.
First, don’t get hung up on what someone said. They probably didn’t say what you remember them saying. And even if they did, you have the context wrong.
Second, don’t ever believe anyone when they tell you what someone else said as if it is important.
Third, if you are talking about what someone else said without them present, you are the one with the problem.
Fourth, pay attention to behavioral patterns. I said behavior. And patterns, not single events.
Fifth, look for multiple independent perspectives. The key here being independent, as in not influenced by each other.
Sixth, never assume someone is lying to you when they say something that isn’t true. Alternatively, just because someone is genuine and sincere, do not assume that they are telling the truth! Most of the untruths we spread aren’t deliberate lies. They are tricks of memory, influenced by our emotions, biased by our identities.