Your life is a lie


This weekend I went to stay with an old school friend. We haven’t hung out together for around 20 years. It was a chance to reminisce over a beer. We talked about our current lives and our shared school experiences.

It was clear that we are very different people now. It was also clear that memories are formed based on our own unique perceptions of the world – our own reality.

During our chat, into the early hours of the morning, there were numerous occasions where she would recount a shared memory. I would find myself looking blank because I couldn’t remember it at all, or being amused by the differences in my memory of the event and hers. In fact, there wasn’t a single memory that we shared where we remembered it in the same way.

Almost every memory you are aware of has been altered in some way. This is mainly due to reconsolidation theory. Every time you recall a memory you change it. You change it based on what you now know. You change it based on what someone else says. You then store the memory back in your brain in the changed format.

Let’s consider a memory of a time when you were a child, where you bit into an apple and noticed half a worm wriggling in the apple (yes this did happen to me!). At the time you spat it out and stopped eating the apple thinking nothing more of it. Then later, as an adult, a couple of things remind you of that incident:

  • You bite into an apple and notice a small hole. You remember the incident with the worm. As an adult you have a broader understanding of consequences. You know a hole could mean a worm. You project what might have happened, based on your experience of what happened that time as a child. Maybe you’ve already eaten the worm. Maybe there will be a worm further down in the apple. You throw it away in disgust and stay away from apples, or when you do eat them, cut them up and examine them closely.
  • One day you are telling a friend that you don’t like apples because of this incident when you were a kid. Your friend gags and says “Gross, I would have puked!”. From that point forward, whenever you think of eating an apple, you also think of being sick at the same time.

Reconsolidation theory means our memories are constantly being re-written.

This can be deliberately manipulated to lose significance and pain from memories. In fact, this is fundamental to the work I do. A client will often look a bit confused and say something like “I am not sure if this is real or if it’s just something I was told but…”

Every memory is a truth and every memory is a lie. Every memory has been changed.

Freud used to believe that stuff was buried deep.

If it was buried deep it wouldn’t be causing you a problem in your day to day life.

In my experience, it’s not the memory that’s the problem, it’s the significance or the pain attached to the memory that is the real problem. As the memory is not real anyway, if we change it in some way deliberately, we can easily remove the pain or the significance.

So remember, next time you are talking to someone over a coffee, you are changing your memories. Next time you write details of your day down in a journal, you are making them stronger. This is important if you are writing down something negative. You are making it stronger.

Practical tips

  1. If you need to write stuff down, when it is bad stuff, destroy it afterwards. Tear it up or burn it.
  2. If you are chatting to a friend and one of you gets upset, break the emotional state somehow with something neutral or something that makes you smile, before you part ways.
  3. Changing any detail about a memory changes the structure. So if you have a painful or repetitive memory that causes you a problem try changing something about it. Zoom in or out, make it black and white or change the colours, change the voice of a person to something silly like Donald Duck or a helium balloon voice.

None of these things will make a dramatically noticeable change, but over time you may begin to realise that the memory is losing it’s edge.

What happened doesn’t matter, it’s the significance you take from it that really matters.

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