Voice Over - My Memory of You

Memory is a slippery thing. It turns out that our memories suck. There are many levels of this memory suckage. We don’t actually record memories accurately in the moment. We don’t recall them accurately immediately after the fact. Every time we recall a memory, we rewrite the narrative and it gets laid down in our brains along a different grove. The farther we go from the actual event and the more often we revisit the memory, the LESS likely that the memory is an accurate reflection of what actually happened. We consolidate events that happened in and around the original event, add detail, subtract people places or things. It’s actually really bad.

Yet, we all believe that we can ‘remember’ something. Wrong. Like… categorically, provably, demonstrably, scientifically wrong.

If your mind isn’t blown by the very idea that your memory is so fallible as to be a laughably inaccurate narrative only remotely related to what actually happened in your past, then you’re not listening to me; Nothing you remember is accurate.

However, if you don’t believe me, that’s okay. No one believes that their memory is wrong. In fact, we double and triple down. When you interview people immediately after a major event (for example one study interviewed people within hours of the Twin Towers disaster in the United States), people tell you a story. You can have people write the story in their own handwriting. You can even record them. And a decade later, they will tell you the story they ‘remember’ and it will not be the same. Many details will have changed. When you call the person on this faulty remembrance, they will insist that their current understanding is the correct one. When shown the writing – their own handwriting – or even the video, they will more often try to convince you that they lied in the past or that the recording was doctored than admit that their current memory of the event is inaccurate. If you’d like to have a pop sci short cut on this finding, I encourage you to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s two episode arc on Revisionist History starting with A Polite Word for Liar.

Here’s the thing. That podcast sent me down my usual intellectual drunken walk through blogs and articles and tweet storms. Never mind the rest of the stuff I stumbled on, the theme that keeps surfacing for me in this literature is that emotional memory lasts longer and is more ‘accurate’ than more tangible things such as images, sounds, words. In other words, the story we tell about how an event made us feel remains remarkably consistent even while all the details such as where we were, who was with us, time of day and the like can drift like dandelions around the swirling core of how we felt.

This has huge implications to the field of change, organisational culture, and leadership. In business, we assume that people are going to remember the things we tell them. They will remember the details of a report or the visuals we build in a presentation. They will read the email, process the video, absorb the training materials, understand the framework. But all of that is actually going to be just spindrift around the emotion we evoke in those moments. Human memory is not actually a recording of what we experience. It is a bio-chemical, probably quantum encapsulation of the physical, emotional response we have in the moment. Most of it will – like short term computer memory – get written over, erased almost as soon as its written. Only those things we carve repeatedly and consistently will actually remain as echoes in the system of what actually happened.

I think about this now as I prepare for a workshop or presentation or coaching session. Far more than the details of what I am demonstrating, describing, or asking people to act on, I look at each encounter as an opportunity to evoke an emotional epiphany that is sufficiently strong and compelling that it might overcome the endless soup of counter memories that try to swamp the feeling I’ve laid down in their brains. And the deeper I can connect the thought to the foundational emotions so ably represented in Maslow’s hierarchy, the more likely the chemistry will be sufficiently caustic to actually WORK. To stay there, motivate change, inspire action.

If you didn't remember something happening, was it because it never had happened? Or because you wished it hadn't?” ~ Jodi Picoult

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