What did you have for breakfast this morning?
There are a number of things that just happened without you having to cognitively engage with the question:
- Your mind did an instant pattern match to the word breakfast. This is like a Google search, but way quicker. The search will have returned a match to the first meal of the day.
- Armed with that fact, it will now search through your memories, moving back through time to whenever it was breakfast time, and zooming in on what you ate (or didn’t eat).
- Next the memory will be layered with meaning. Were you hungry? Did you enjoy it? How were you feeling at the time? Your mind will be flooded with the meaning of the question “What did you have for breakfast?”.
- What happens next depends on what that meaning was. When I was a child I used to go and stay with my granny sometimes. She lived in the North Wales hills in an old farmhouse. My home life was not great. I had a stepmother that hated me and as a result I was badly neglected, and skeletally thin due to not being fed enough. We weren’t poor. She just didn’t care. When I went to my granny’s to stay everything was different. There was so much delicious food. In the morning, breakfast was usually porridge covered in dark brown sugar and drizzled with evaporated milk. I used to stir it all in to create a wonderfully tasty and filling breakfast. So, when you ask me that question my brain has already accessed that memory. I have no choice in the matter.
All of these steps happen instantly, outside of your conscious awareness. The results are returned from the search in full 4D, with images, feelings, timings and other people, faster than you can do a google search on the word ‘breakfast’. And you have no idea that all of this has just happened when you reply with “toast”, or something else.
Memories with meaning are called Episodic memories and these are your triggers as you go about your day. Let me tell you a trigger sequence that just happened.
- I had a coffee with a friend and we were talking about a brainstorming session I’d had. I did my usual pinball machine effect, bouncing all over the place with ideas. The other person was more measured and structured, thinking about each thing. Afterwards they went a little quiet and I was worried.
- My friend told me that one of the things I don’t realise about myself is that I think and process and act really quickly, and most people don’t do that. The other person needed to process and absorb at a different pace. It was a valid point, and one of the main reasons why I think we make a great team.
- I told my friend that it’s something I often fail to recognise about myself, and also how intimidating that can be for others.
- I remembered a study session at Uni where a friend, who is now my husband, was running the session because he understood it and we all didn’t. He explained it in a way that made sense to me. That was it. I didn’t need any more as I now understood the whole concept. He was blown away as he’d never met anyone like me before. Incidentally this is why I can’t listen to podcasts or learn stuff form YouTube – they don’t get to the point quickly enough for me.
- This morning I was thinking about the conversation. My husband often tutors 15/16yo kids on maths. These have been friend’s kids so far. He works hard to plan it and makes sure that he is communicating in a way that works for that kid. He’s helped four kids but each have only done it last minute and had 2 sessions. When the kids don’t get the result he expects, he feels like he’s really failed them.
- I missed the last year of my A-Levels (16-18yo exams) because I was ill. If I tried to go to school in the morning I got sick. If it was the afternoon I was fine. I ended up taking my exams at home with teacher supervision. I did Computers, Maths and English. Computers was in a college in the afternoon so I always made those classes and passed the exam. The English teacher supported me really well, sent work home and even had be at her house for a tutor session. I passed that exam. The Maths teacher didn’t care and didn’t support me at all. I failed that.
- However, about a month before the exams my parents sorted a maths tutor for me. He was brilliant. I totally got what he was covering. I had him for 2 sessions and actually went into the exam feeling I would do ok. But I failed. Because no matter how good he was, and how smart I was, 2 sessions was not enough to prepare me for an exam.
- I told my husband this, knowing that he knew I was bright enough to get it. It allowed him to see if he wants to have a fair chance to make a difference, he needs way more than just a couple of sessions.
One conversation, with one idea, is enough to trigger a whole sequence of episodic memories that might take you anywhere.