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Why We Can’t Trust Our Brain: How Our Memory Really Works, And Why It Matters.


Have you ever reminisced about an experience you’ve shared with someone else only to find that you have completely different recollections? It feels like you’re remembering the situation completely wrong. But it happens more than you might think. 


You see it’s not just that we experience things differently in the moment. You could stand in the exact same spot, in the exact same circumstance as your friend and have completely different interpretations and therefore memories of what’s come to pass. It’s because our emotional reaction and our previous experiences have a huge impact on how we interpret the world around us and, as a result, how we remember events. 


Think about it, if two people stood in front of a dog and one of them had a dog and the other had almost been bitten by a dog as a child, their perception of the situation is going to be completely different. One person is going to feel all warm and fuzzy and the other is going to be terrified.

The situation itself hasn’t changed but the individual’s beliefs and experiences have altered their perception of it. 


So, straightaway, we can’t really trust our brain to have an unbiased, dispassionate view of what’s going on around us. When we factor the passage of time into the equation, the memory only gets more and more skewed.

Building Beliefs

Fundamentally, we draw on past experiences and memories to help make decisions or solidify beliefs in the present. It’s how our brain works – it’s essentially a giant prediction machine. It utilises similar experiences that we’ve had in order to gauge our safety. It all stems from our survivalist needs back in our caveman days. Funnily enough, that caveman brain is still firmly in our skull, and our modern, rational prefrontal cortex just grew over the top of it as we evolved.


So, it means that in any given situation, survival is our brain’s primary concern. It’s as basic as that. Why is this important for our memory? When we register something going on around us, we’re likely to have two emotions in quick succession, one being our true reaction and the following one being the emotion that sticks with us. 


Let’s put it this way, say your best friend gets a promotion. Your immediate reaction might be one of joy, you’re happy for them, they’ve worked hard. Your subsequent emotion might be one of jealousy or sadness that you maybe aren’t ascending through the ranks at the same pace. Because this is the final emotion you feel about the situation, that’s what your brain remembers. It stores the memory as something that makes you feel less than, rather than something that brought you joy.

Immediately, our brain is storing memories that don’t show the full picture.

Another thing to consider is that every time we go to retrieve a memory it changes slightly. We have the benefit of hindsight or perhaps someone in that memory is no longer in your life. These external factors warp the way we think about these memories and our brain picks up on that and makes a note. Suddenly something that was once one of your happiest memories is now irreparably tainted because maybe that person isn’t around anymore.

Emotional Narrators

This happens with childhood memories a lot. We don’t have the care-free, lack of regard for our own safety that we had back then. We look back and think why the hell did my parents let me do that, or how did I actually make it out of childhood? At the time, none of that was a concern – that perspective wasn’t there. And sometimes we look back with a fond nostalgia, missing our youth, when in actuality, maybe living through our school days weren’t that fun. We well and truly had the rose-tinted glasses on.


Honestly, nostalgia is one of the only times that our natural negative bias doesn’t come into play.

As humans, we’re neurologically programmed to be skeptical and focus on the negative information. The logic behind this is that as cavepeople we needed to know what was likely to kill us, so focusing on anything different or being skeptical of different areas and berries  by in large, kept us alive. Great back then, not as useful now when we tend to focus on the negative aspects of the news, gossip, social media all of that stuff that ends up causing us unnecessary stress.


Our memory is unreliable. The section of our brain that houses our emotional centre also includes our stress centre and is in the same region as our hippocampus, which looks after our memories. All of these things are in our older, survival-driven caveman brain. You know what’s not in your caveman brain? Rational thought -that’s in the new prefrontal cortex. If we’re focusing on the negatives of a situation, our cortisol levels rise and we begin to get stressed, triggering our danger alarm, otherwise known as our amygdala, to take over and shut down our rational, decision making processes. 


This means our entire attention span is consumed by the perceived threat and whether we’re going to fight, flee, or freeze. It’s clear that we’re not looking at the whole picture here. Because this is a powerful, emotionally charged incident, our brain is going to ensure we remember this scenario, but it’s only going to remember the fraction of the situation that stresses us out, therefore associating the situation with negative thoughts and feelings. This ends up informing future decisions where our brain draws on previous experiences, so suddenly, we’re basing our life decisions on highly biased, unreliable information. Not ideal.

Keeping our brain active

Finally, when we’re under stimulated and inactive our cognitive functions, including memory, start to deteriorate. It’s because we’re on autopilot, we’re not doing anything interesting that the brain has to actively pay attention to. Your brain doesn’t care that you’ve binged watched a box set on the sofa all day, so when you’re trying to remember the name of that bit-character in episode one, chances are, it’s not going to come to you, because your brain wasn’t engaged. 


This is because of something called your DMN or default mode network. It’s our brain’s way of letting us daydream when we’re not actively participating or focusing on one thing. Unfortunately, it also allows us to ruminate and fall down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals. We turn this part of the brain off and activate the TPN or task positive network by actually doing something. Anything. Focus on one task wholeheartedly or get up and move. It’s the brain’s equivalent of wiggling your computer mouse to wake up your screen. It alerts your brain and says “look pay attention, this might be useful”.


When we’re in a DMN state, our memories aren’t actively being processed and stored in our long term memory, meaning that we won’t be able to draw on them in the future. Our brain needs information in order to make choices and decisions that keep us alive, or at the least, out of harm’s way. If we’re under stimulated, we’re not creating data, which means our brain is going to remain uncertain in new situations, something that causes a flood of the stress hormone, cortisol. Again, not ideal.


So, what’s the solution?

There are loads of reasons why our memory and recollections are fundamentally unreliable and yet our brain uses them repeatedly as the basis for it’s decision making. It hardly sounds like a solid life strategy. And yet, we cannot remove negative bias from our brain, it’s been in there for millennia. We cannot remove emotions from our memories, and realistically, you wouldn’t want to. We can’t get rid of hindsight, as it does help us see our memories in a different light for better or worse. In fact, this is something that, in a way, we should be leaning into.


Perspectives matter.

We just need to start taking them into consideration, rather than wholeheartedly believing our own account of what happened. We need to actively think “okay what really happened” or “how would someone else see this”. This helps us to get a more well-rounded view of the world and provide our brain with more and more information that it can draw on in the future. More information means higher chances of accurate predictions from our brain. Less uncertainty means less chance of stress or anxiety. All good things.


Stress massively impacts our memory, and it’s far more than purely an emotional response, it’s a neurochemical one and, in some cases, it generates a physical reaction. That’s a multisensory experience that’s bound to leave a powerful impact in our hippocampus. Overall, it can be a deeply unsettling experience and something we’d ideally like to avoid.Our brain recognises this and essentially wards us off doing anything similar, but in reality, a lack of certainty or information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Trying something new, a surprise party – these kinds of things all require a level of uncertainty but, most of the time, have a positive outcome. 


If we allow our perception of uncertainty to be associated only with stress, then our lives and our experiences are going to be massively limited. This is why not blindly trusting our memory and our brain really matters. So, are you going to only believe your limited view and recollection of the world, or are you going to open yourself up to multiple interpretations and possibilities? The choice is yours…