Human Memory

I’ve often said that vain regrets about the past are meaningless, and a recently concluded 10 year study soon to be released provides reason #37 as to why that is so.

Jonah Lehrer noted in his Wall Street Journal article entitled: “When Memory Commits and Injustice” that:

The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true. Although our recollections seem like literal snapshots of the past, they’re actually deeply flawed reconstructions, a set of stories constantly undergoing rewrites.

Consider our collective memories of 9/11. For the last 10 years, researchers led by William Hirst of the New School and Elizabeth Phelps of New York University have been tracking the steady decay of what people recall about that tragic event. They first quizzed people shortly after the attacks, then after one year, and found that 37% of the details had already changed. Although the most recent data have yet to be published, they’re expected to reveal that the vast majority of remembered “facts” are now make-believe.

He continued:

In recent years, neuroscientists have documented how these mistakes happen. It turns out that the act of summoning the past to the surface actually changes the memory itself. Although we’ve long imagined our memories as a stable form of information, a data file writ into the circuits of the brain, that persistence is an illusion. In reality, our recollections are always being altered, the details of the past warped by our present feelings and knowledge. The more you remember an event, the less reliable that memory becomes.

I cannot stress enough the importance of living in the “now.” It is terribly easy to let the past hamper your work in the present! I hope that these new findings on human memory help you to see the folly of overlaying your memory of the past on the opportunities that are crossing the threshold that separates the future and the present.

To make all things new you must see all things new.

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8 Responses to Human Memory

  1. Isabelle says:

    Wow, that is fascinating! I’m actually thankful now that I have such a bad memory. Even if I didn’t, I agree, That we must live in the present. What’s the point of rehashing the past anyway? Some may say we learn from history, which can be true, but at the same time if we are constantly refining our expression, we can live in the present and won’t have to always look to see the past failures or successes of others to determine our own.

  2. Coco says:

    Thanks for the good news. Listening to others describe an event we witnessed (nothing taumatic as 9/11, just a past event ) has been both amusing and frightening. Often I’d feel, were we at the same event? I’m not surprised at the findings. Even siblings describing childhood events can seem like they belonged to two different families. Your post supports what most adults have probably deduced but discounted. Relying on our own memories or anothers to use as a reference point for action or as a beginning for initiating a direction or method is pointless. This may be one of mankinds chief reasons for past failures!
    Great post.

  3. Lady Leo says:

    Einstein was ahead of the curve as usual, he said, “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today’s events.”… not to mention the quality of the heart.
    Just trying to make history “politically correct ” has annihilated our own American history. They have actually ommited or changed grade school text books to fit what is acceptable today. Sometimes the past seems so painful to today’s standards. This brings to light the folly of judgement.
    Living in the present with the ability for original thinking is the best opportunity for forward movement.
    Interesting post, thank you.

  4. Colin says:

    That is really interesting because memories can seem to be so real! I guess as long as you remember things enough not to make the mistakes of the past, letting go of the regret of past memories is the best course of action. Similarly, it is wise to remember the things that went well in the past as well and why they did, but living in the successes of the past is just as damaging as living in the failures of the past. The things that matter happen now. That is the only time that we have control over, and the only time that really is worth our limited focus.

  5. David R says:

    That is a fascinating observation, and opens the door to many important areas of consideration. Impressions gained from past experience (sometimes called memories) form the basis for so much motivation, and on that basis one can see how much present motivation is based on illusion!

    As you say, living in the present is the key. Here the essences of both past and future are concentrated, and to live with the greatest possible degree of accuracy, translating the essences of life into the momentary array of circumstance, is the key to everything.

  6. What a relieving and refreshing thought. We don’t need to carry the past on top of the present. Your words today set the stage for newness now. Thank you.

  7. Joshua says:

    It’s much more difficult to walk through life backwards.
    It’s no wonder so many stumble and trip so often…..
    One eye on what is, and one on what’s coming, as we move forward.
    Together let’s do away with the tragic overlay, that has persisted far too long.

  8. Kelli L. says:

    Fascinating study!

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