How our minds can trick us
By Kristine Keller
“I really like him,” is how a conversation began with a friend this past weekend over Bloody Mary’s at La Esquina. She sat in front of me twisting her celery stick and allowing the red froth to soak the giant ice cubes while recounting details of her latest crush. “But wait,
didn’t you tell me that he flirted with 3 other girls in front of your face last weekend?” I replied, tilting my head and arching my eyebrows to express my emphatic confusion. “Well now that I’m re-thinking the situation, he wasn’t really flirting. He was just chatting casually, I mean not unlike what we’re doing now.”
It’s a wise tactic to re-frame situations so that your cocktail is half-full, but you also must be wary of what happens when your mind begins to actually misrepresent information. At this point, we know a lot about the memory. We know the hippocampus, located in the limbic system, is the area of the brain that controls our memories. We know that there are guerilla-memory tactics, like acronyms to enhance your mind’s ability to recall information. If King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti wasn’t your saving grace when memorizing the animal kingdom’s classification system, you’re either lying to yourself or maybe you created your own acronym (in which case, please share).
But we also know that memory is malleable. And while you’re memory can act as your closest confidant at times, helping you remember what you need for school and work, or remembering important dates—it can also Benedict Arnold you. It can convince you that you saw something that wasn’t actually present. It can reconstruct entire scenarios. It can look you in your mind’s eye and lie to your face. It’s not that our memories are trying to attract us to the wrong guy or make us sound silly when recounting romantic details. Rather, it’s that our memories and strong emotions are inextricably intertwined. One possible reason for the discrepancy in truth versus distortion is that how we appraise situations in the moment influence how we perceived what happened in the past. This is because our memories follow a principle called mood-congruency, whereby our current mood determines memory retrieval of a past mood. When you’re sitting with your friends recounting situations that were at one time painful, whilst simultaneously playing the latest hit, #Beautiful, by Mariah and Miguel, it’s hard to retrieve a negative memory. Instead, your mind will grasp for positive associations that you’re currently exhibiting. How can you feel any sort of hashtag-hate when Mariah is old-school belting like it’s 1995?
Psychologist and memory connoisseur, Dr. Daniel Schacter, says that part of reconstructing events is due to the current hodgepodge of information in front of us when retrieving and recalling events. We’re biased by our current attitudes, knowledge, and moods. In a now famous memory study, Dr. Linda J. Levine had participants rate their emotional reactions to one-time Presidential candidate Ross Perot after he abruptly withdrew from the 1992 election. When he surprisingly re-entered the race, participants were asked to recall the initial emotions they first reported after his withdrawal. The study found that people could not accurately recall their initial negative feelings about Perot’s withdrawal. Participants’ memories were distorted by their current, more positive, attitudes about his re-entering the race.
Though reconstructing memories can sometimes be beneficial in easing anxiety or getting over grudges, we must proceed with caution. If might be a problem if you’re consistently distorting scenarios to believe your guy or gal was friendly chitchatting other bar patrons at Wilfie & Nell, when he or she was really compiling an inventory of digits. It can also confuse the way you feel about independent presidential candidates, and who wants that? One tactic we can use is doing our best to compartmentalize our emotions and memories when retrieving important information. We can also consult others who were present at the scene that might provide an objective social audit. When in doubt, consult the memory acronym-almanac for: F.D.L.F.M.L. (Friends don’t let friends’ memories lie). Remember that.
Kristine received her master’s in psychology from New York University. E-mail her at StreetshrinkNYC@gmail.com for topic requests.
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