My partner and I often disagree over what we remember. He will tell me something one day and I will not remember it the next—or even fifteen minutes later—and vice versa.
I have witnessed other people discussing a shared experience but with completely different memories of the event.
My memory is usually only conceptual. If you and I were to have a conversation, within a matter of minutes I could only tell you my impression of the conversation.
In retelling, I may reverse who said what. My impression could even include ideas that I had at the time, skewing whatever message you were trying to relay.
Also, I’ve noticed that each time I recall something it seems more defined. This is such a contradiction to my beliefs and poses the question: How can I remember an event clearly days later, if my memory is abstract and convoluted within minutes of the event itself?
Mistaken Memory Mindset
There were some beliefs I had about memory that are not supported by the evidence:
I thought that memory was recorded like video. That was how I had seen it portrayed on television.
According to this belief, when we remember something, we pull up a rendition of our lived experiences in vivid detail.
A chronological memory would allow us to open our mental file and give a solid timeline of events, playing out conversations from beginning to end.
If memory fades over time, then the further back you look, the harder it would be to recall, and the more obscure details would become.
Now it seems silly that I ever worked on these assumptions. I cannot even quantify the amount of frustration and disappointment I have experienced based on this logic.
Compacted and Redacted
Let’s look at the evidence at hand to find a better explanation.
If each time we remember something we bring up the whole picture—what the weather was that day or the clothes we were wearing—and then have to sort through all of that to find the information we are looking for, we would be stuck in an endless game of Where’s Waldo.
If our minds are not storing data as a whole picture, what is actually happening?
Our minds store data into categories. Think of it as if you cut up the picture into a bunch of little pieces and put each piece into different files.
If the file were “body language” you would cut out all the facial expressions and gestures. Based on the experience already in the file you would label an expression “happy” or “sad,” etc.
Later you only remember the happy or sad label, instead of how many times a person frowned while looking down and brushing their hair behind their ear.
The brain is making a compact memory with a few key points and everything deemed non-essential gets scrapped. That means the process is not about remembering; it is about forgetting.
What we are thinking must influence what our mind decides is relevant. We make the choices that form our memories.
Once the information is filed in the compact memory, AKA long-term memory, we actively forget the short term. Even though the information may still be stored, if it is not used to make the memory, then it is just a loose puzzle piece without any relevance.
So why do some memories fade with time while others do not? There must be a secondary process of forgetting as well.
Each time I recall a memory, the connection between all the little pieces strengthens. Basically, by remembering something, you make it brand new again. Over time, the glue holding together the memories that are not being touched wears off and they turn back into a bunch of loose pieces without relevance.
Now I know that if I forget something, it is because my mind is doing what it is supposed to do. I am not failing at remembering; I am succeeding at forgetting.
Having a more accurate understanding of the memory process allows me to turn it into a tool.
In theory, knowing that my thoughts directly impact how my memories are created, I can find ways to train my mind on what to recognize as relevant. Shifting my perspective will change my memory. Recalling the memories later will support my chosen perspective.