“Our Identities are built on shifting sand”

This is a quote from Charan Ranganath, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis.

I read Ranganath’s interview in the New York Times.   He was promoting his new book, Why We Remember.

The quote encapsulates Ranganath’s thesis about memories – they change based on our own interpretation of the event when we recall it.

Your perception of your high school graduation one week later will be very different from your memory of it today.

The same goes for any other memory.

Our brains are constantly trying to figure things out and find a pattern.  That’s why we develop a “cause and effect” outlook.

We expect to get the same outcome when we repeat an event.  To make his point, Ranganath gave the example of ordering coffee at a café. 

“Hey, I’m walking up and giving money to the cashier. The barista is going to hand me a cup of coffee in about a minute or two.”

This is everyday fortunetelling, according to Ranganath. “There’s nothing that says the barista won’t throw this coffee at me.”

There is an illusion at play – we think we know exactly what’s going to happen, but we don’t.

And that brings me to why I was so interested in this topic – it relates directly to dating and relationships.

Our memories from past relationships and dating encounters absolutely shape who we are and the beliefs we hold.

But our memory can overdo it – it can over-generalize and interpret new events through the same lens of those old memories.

Here’s an example – at 16, your girlfriend broke up with you the day after you introduced her to your family. 

The memory has stayed with you and you wince a little every time you recall it.

In the years that follow, your mind might have steered you away from bringing girlfriends to family gatherings.

But today you see it differently.  That fear isn’t as strong.

That’s a point Ranganath highlighted – “One thing that makes the human brain so sophisticated is that we have a longer timeline in which we can integrate information than many other species.”

And that’s the point I want to leave you with – your brain may try to limit your thinking based on past memories but you have the ability to interpret those memories differently, with more perspective.

Just because a beautiful woman dumped you, it doesn’t mean the next one will do the same.

If you had a bad experience with a woman who struggled with intimacy and you tied it to her parents getting divorced, it doesn’t mean another woman who came from a divorced family will behave the same way.

You have the ability to reinterpret your memories and draw new conclusions.

Ranganath summed it up this way, “Our memory is more like a painting than a photograph.  As a painter evolves, they could revisit the same subject over and over and paint differently based on who they are now.”

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