By Chris Heath, M.D.
Memories make us who we are. They create our worldview in ways we hardly realize. Like a character made of Legos, we’re built of blocks of memory that all fit together to form our consciousness. How can it be otherwise? How can we say hello to someone or lean in to kiss someone new without evoking memories of previous greetings and kisses? The way it feels to be you—your hopes expectations, and fears—are all built upon what you’ve experienced before.
It’s common for people to suppose memory is simply remembering what you had for breakfast, or that home run you made in school, or when you had your first kiss. Indeed, it is that, but it’s so much more.
So, if everything is based on past memories, how can we experience anything new?
Types of Memory
Think about riding a bicycle. It comes naturally, even if it’s been 10 years since you were last on a bike; your body just remembers it. Procedural memory is the complex way your body and brain remember how to do things. This is very different than declarative memory, which is the conscious recall of things, like what you had for breakfast—or when you last rode a bike.
Procedural memory is more than just balancing a bike, though. For example, it includes the joy of riding. And part of that joy is created by the association of the feeling of perseverance you had when learning to ride, and the freedom of roaming your neighborhood with your friends once you got the hang of it, and the warmth of your parents’ reaction when you fell off and scraped your knee. And what if you don’t like to ride bikes? This may have something to do with your past experiences. For instance, what if peers mocked you for falling all the time? Perhaps that shame resonates with feelings that you continue to struggle with.
Types of Experience
Just as there are two kinds of memory, there are also two ways that we experience situations in our life. Foremost, there is our conscious experience that is logical and apparent. Beyond this is another level of experience: the way it feels to be you. Psychoanalysts call these two levels of experience content (the logical stuff) and process (the way it feels; a lot of this is unconscious).
Content is the stuff you say to each other; I say, “Let’s go out.” And you might say, “Great, why don’t we go to that new amusement park?” Process is what it’s like to be there together; this is where memory is embodied. For example, I am unconsciously drawn to the depth in your eyes as we speak. Or, without realizing it, I have a positive association discovering something new and novel about you every time we speak, like that you love roller coasters because you adore the feeling of butterflies in your stomach just before you reach the first drop. There’s memory in this, too. For example, I remember the way my first love felt, whether I’m aware of it or not. This is all expressed in the process: it’s in my tone of voice and body language. The majority of communication happens non-verbally.
Process has negatives, too. If I’m with someone who treats me badly, why can’t I leave? Perhaps I rationalize that it would be logistically difficult; that’s content. Process is about the feelings. Maybe I feel like I deserve the treatment I receive or perhaps I think I’ll never find anyone who will treat me better, so I might as well stay. Process may not make sense, but it’s often more powerful than content because it's about emotions.
Using the Past to Improve the Present
Everything we have learned, from how to play with others, how to read, how to resolve conflicts, makes us who we are. Things like who taught us and our experience of the learning are embedded in the memory itself.
Like the fish that doesn’t notice the water around it, our lives are steeped in these memories. It’s the same way with relationships. In every kiss is the excitement of your first kiss and your first love. If you don’t notice it, look for it and let it in. Every present-day experience of being cared for includes all your experiences of being loved by others, all the way back to adolescence and childhood, no matter what your age. The unconscious is timeless.
Pay attention to what you remember, because it brings meaning to the moment. For example, if you’re enjoying time with a good friend, what makes this interaction, and this friend, special? Is it certain ways they make you feel? Do you find yourself relaxed, excited, appreciated? Apply this to your activities, your profession, the next “first kiss” you have with someone new. Pay attention to what your body is communicating. The better you understand why you are who you are, the more empowered you’ll be to create yourself intentionally.
To learn more about memory, please watch my video on YouTube:
About the Author: Dr. Chris Heath is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He is a member of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He creates videos about how your mind works. His YouTube channel is Freudalicious Mind.