Does It Matter How Your Memory Works?

I recently was part of an on-line conversation about the family movie Inside Out. (Parents and kids alike are loving it -- check out the Facebook page!)

There has been some criticism from brain-people that know a lot about how memory works that some memory metaphors in the movie aren't...well...quite right.

Other people feel the power of the film for teaching about emotions -- the importance of every kind of emotion, how we manage them, a vocabulary for parents and children to talk about feelings, even for those of us who might be grown-up children without a good emotional vocabulary -- far outweighs any factual slips.

I want to suggest both sides are "right".

But I also want to share that I strongly believe that how we think about our brains -- our "model" of the brain -- can influence how we live our life. (Hence, my little tag line: Understanding the Hidden Principles of Your Brain as a Rosetta Stone to Life -- I really, really mean it.)

So, here are my thoughts on whether understanding how your memory works really makes any difference to the bigger picture...

Movie Enthusiast:

Wow – for me, the main message wasn’t the brain and memory stuff at all – the real power was  in the normalizing of emotions, positivity, and the impact on relationships.

But I’m curious – some people have commented on the potential inaccuracies about memory – what difference does it make, do you think? Are there really any Real Life impacts on how we understand how memory is “wired” or not?

Dear Movie Enthusiast:

What a great question!

IMHO, how we understand the way the brain works can make a huge difference to our lives (that’s why I make my living that way ;-). Not the actual anatomic connections, which I believe are relevant only in very specialized settings. But the dynamics of the brain – the ebb and flowof how it communicates with itself and the internal and external world – is hugely important.

For example, someone shared a moviegoer’s observation that Now a days I'd say my personal memory marbles are mostly purple with fear or blue with sadness.”                            

If we go with the movie's idea of memories as filed on a shelf somewhere and pulled out when triggered or intentionally recalled, then that person is kind of stuck with that colouring and emotional mix until they create new memories that feel better.

But what if...

…we knew that memories that are never a “factual recording” of what happened? That they are always tinted by our moods, our relationships, our attention, our environment, our history… that there is no “Truth” in memory to which we need to be faithful? And that others will always have a different memory of the “same thing”? (i.e., that memories are re-constructed every single time by the firing of the associated networks)

…that memories never really fade into nothingness, as the movie suggests? That memories continue to influence new learning and prior reactions/responses? (i.e., we don’t really unlearn things; we weaken the probability they will pop into conscious awareness easily or first and we strengthen more commonly accessed network connections that then pop up instead)

…that memories therefore aren’t self-contained books we read, but a doorway into a larger network of connections we can “browse” and “surf” until we find what we’re looking for (i.e., that memories aren’t “stored” somewhere, they are the ripple effect of inter-connected network elements)

…and all that meant a person can literally re-build a memory by focusing on different elements or a different interpretation each time they recall it? (i.e., memories are re-constructed every time we think them; they aren’t static)

…or that they could re-colour a memory by holding a different emotional space when they think about it? (i.e., networks that fire together, wire together)

…or that they don’t have to “sit” with a memory, they can surf any memory to something that feels better (like, for example, how do I wish this conversation had gone?... and then doing something about it).

…that knowing my thinking is constructing and re-constructing my memories afresh every time means I have the power to help determine how that evolves by my mindset and other practices (e.g., gratitude, compassion, mindfulness, etc.)

Does that help engage some ideas about why our model of the brain can influence how we live our lives?

(I also have some strong feelings about the top-down Headquarters/control centres presented in the movie and the notion of any part of our brain as “competing”, but maybe that’s another conversation ;-)

Thanks for asking such a great question, Moviegoer!

Any thoughts come to mind about how you might "sculpt" your memories differently?