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What if Memories are Personal Opinions?

neuroscience, neuroscience in business, human behavior, human mind, memoriesIt was prom night and your dress was perfect. Or maybe you just scored the winning touchdown at homecoming? Or perhaps it’s the memory of your wedding or your first born child.  Then there’s the memory of your first customer sale, the first team you managed, the first product you released or even your first time standing in front of your organization as CEO.

Our neural systems are filled with memories from our lives. As we discussed on Monday, the problem is that those memories may or may not be real.

It’s most likely that are memories are, indeed, partially made up of our very own fantasy.

Here are  more insights into this amazing phenomenon.

Memory Loss and Memory Additions

In a series of studies by Frederic Bartlett*, we learn that our memories evolve over time. Bartlett used the “whisper game” as the paradigm for how our memories work. You know that game, where we pass a story around a room and see how it morphs across multiple tellings.

Here’s what he learned about our human memories:

  • He read a North American folktale to his participants. Then he asked them to recount the tale at various intervals after the original telling of the story had faded a bit. 
  • He learned that some details were dropped, even as new details were added. In general, subjects tried to smooth the story to make it more understandable and believable.
  • The new details added followed some basic rules:
    • The stories became shorter and simpler.
    • Subjects kept the basic form of the story but dropped many details.
    • Details that were considered “supernatural” were eliminated.
    • New details were added to explain anything the subject didn’t agree with.

Bartlett’s conclusion after this and other studies was this.  (I paraphrased for clarity and size)

The human process of fitting memories into a comfortable form is an active process.  It depends on the subject’s  prior knowledge and beliefs about the world and the specific events around the memory,  as well as the preferred tendencies and biases which each individual brings to the process of remembering.

In a nutshell, Bartlett discovered that  we remember based upon our own unique perspectives. And we morph our memories to match those perspectives over time.

Change Blindness

Then there’s the phenomenon of change blindness** – where we actually miss changes in an event or image. This phenomenon occurs because we only notice what our conscious mind pays attention to, or registers, in any situation. Our unconscious mind drastically filters the 11M bits of information we take in every second. Only 126 bits is sent to the conscious mind – and only this 126 bits has a chance of being part of our conscious memory. Whatever is in the data our unconscious mind filters out isn’t registered or noticed by our unconscious mind.

That means that in every second, we lose 10,999,874 bits of information.  Think how many  important aspects of an event, and changes within the event, are held within that vast amount of data that we literally ignore.

The Bottom Line

So what can you do to assure that your memories are true?  Not a lot.  The memory errors we experience are part and parcel of the Technology of our Minds…it’s how we work.

That said, we can be aware of the ins and outs of our memories and shift our behaviors and assumptions to match that knowledge. Instead of relying on every memory as the truth, think of our memories as outlines of a situation, noticing the framework but also checking the details with others.

Most importantly – we can begin to shift our habits of relying on those past memories to guide our today and tomorrow.

Why begin with what we know is most likely faulty data?  Yet another reason to start with a blank whiteboard!


* Sir Frederick Charles Bartlett, A Study in Experimental Social Psychology, Cambridge University Press, 1932

** Daniel J Simons and Daniel T Levin, Failure to Detect Changes to People During a Real World Interaction,  1998.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles

The post What if Memories are Personal Opinions? appeared first on Rebel Brown.

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More Stories By Rebel Brown

Rebel Brown guides organizations and individuals to harness the power of their minds to step into their ultimate potential. A masterful agent of change, for over 25 years Rebel Brown has inspired, coached and empowered individuals and businesses to unstoppable performance and results. As a recognized market strategist and turnaround expert, Rebel guided over 200 global organizations to step beyond their status quo perspectives to create profitable market advantage. She also worked with US and European venture firms to successfully fund and launch their portfolios. She also ran a consulting practice in Paris for three years, working with European clients. Fascinated by the power of our human minds to limit ourselves and our business results, she began her study of neural science. Her core question was simple. What could we do if we had no limits? Today, she brings the power of neuroscience to business (NeuroBusiness),fueling limitless thinking that drives powerful bottom line growth for her executive and corporate clients. Rebel’s work has been featured in media including First Business TV, Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Business Insider and Business Week. She is a Vistage International speaker and workshop leader as well as NSA speaker. She’s also been named one of the Top 100 Women in Computing. Rebel is also the founder and director of the Unstoppable U Foundation, a non-profit program committed to guiding kids to know that they are born to be Unstoppable!

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