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Dementia of Youth—Why Our Memories Are So Unreliable

Ongoing research confirms that we may be inadvertently misled by false memories

Source: Michail_Petrov-96/iStockphoto

We generally take it for granted that our memories are accurate. And these memories often inform the stories of our lives. Ask any speaker or writer what most captures the attention of people, and you are bound to hear "stories." Yet, as colorful, emotional, and impactful as our stories may be, they are unfortunately also often false.

In my new book, "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try" I explain why our memories are like a house of mirrors. For this reason, we can't really "focus on the facts" because we often misremember things.

Memory Distortion: In 2006, psychologists Chad Dodson and Lacy Krueger conducted a study to explore misremembering.

Study participants watched a video about a burglary and a police chase. Then they were given a questionnaire with some questions that related to the video and others that were closely (but not actually) related. For instance, they were asked about “the police shooting” or burglars having a gun. but neither event had been shown in the video.

The researchers then asked the participants to recall which things occurred in the video, on the questionnaire, in both, or in neither. To add an element of uncertainty, the researchers explained that some events on the questionnaire did not actually relate to the video.

The result was that both younger and older people misremembered information like a police shooting that never really happened.

Memory Illusions: Not only do we distort information, but we also make up things that never really happened. For example, researchers studied whether we misremember words. After giving people a string of related words (e.g. nurse, sick, medicine), they gave them another string of words from which they had to pick out the prior words that were given to them. But among the words were distractors called lures (e.g. doctor) that related to the original list but were not actually words that were previously seen. By and large, many people recalled seeing the lures when in fact they had not seen them at all.

Distorting timelines: We are also not particularly good at remembering timelines, no matter how "focused" we think we are. In 2014, psychologists Youssef Ezzyat and Lila Davachi described how we regularly miscalculate the timeline of seeing people’s faces on any particular day, depending on the emotions and memories that are intruding. If the memory is not properly "baked" into the brain, this can cause massive distortions.

Implications: So much of our progress in life is impacted by what we remember. Yet what we remember may in fact be distorted, confabulated, and on an entirely different timeline than it actually occurred.

Andrew Campbell and his colleagues reminded us that good leaders make bad decisions because of this very misremembering. Similarly, we may proceed slowly in life because we are hampered by the memory of prior traumatic events. Though this may be true in some instances, in others it is not. Over-investing in the past may distract us from the future.

In lieu of these findings then, it makes sense to be more light-hearted about our life narratives—to tinker with them and explore their accuracy—and to pay attention to red flags when we have a hint of misremembering.

Our future plans depend in part on what our brains predict. And if our brains are using inaccurate information to inform our prediction circuits, what we choose in life will always feel a little incongruent with who we are.

For this reason, if you feel out of sorts with your life choices, spend some time thinking and talking about this. Let your mind wander so that it can encounter new memories. Be mindful of your ideas (i.e. spend some time observing them) rather than falling for them hook, line and sinker. And even after you are mindful, tinker with your memories by asking, "What if they are false?" You'll be surprised how tinkering by making small experimental shifts in life choices can make a huge difference.

To learn more about why we need to avoid going through life on autopilot, get a copy of "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind" (Ballantine Books, 2017)