Try remembering the last movie you saw; how much of it can you recall?
Could you sit back, close your eyes, and recall in perfect detail every scene, every dialog?
Of course not.
So why do you assume you can do the same for the movie of your life?
Our real-life is nothing but a huge collection of random memories.
And fortunately or unfortunately, this collection of memories is easily prone to innumerable modifications thanks to both internal and external influences.
The other day, while going through the family photographs that dated back some six years, I don’t know why, but I couldn’t recall the exact feeling of those moments captured inside the frame, despite the best of my efforts.
And I knew it had to do with something more than just my advancing age.
I realized that as the memory gets older, the chances of getting it amended under the influence of the current state of mind through which it is retrieved increases substantially. Consequently, we end up unintentionally smoothing many incongruencies, rearranging timelines, and invent scenarios while recalling memories.
That’s exactly what I was struggling with when recalling the sequence of events and the timelines, trying to recall the contextual feelings.
But we rarely notice ourselves doing this until we see ourselves in a video or hear another person’s version of the same events.
Despite this, we tend to see our memories as something of a continuous and consistent movie.
Convenient but patently wrong!
Let’s try to understand this through science.
Memories At Work
Scientists generally agree memories aren’t recorded like videos or stored like data on a hard drive. They are constructed and assembled on the spot as if Lego blocks from a bucket in your brain.
Not only do we filter our past through the prism of our present, but our memory is easily infected by social contagion.
As a result of this contagion, we keep incorporating others’ memories into our own heads all the time.
Similarly, our memories are susceptible to get tainted by the feelings under which they were created and the emotional status under which they were recalled.
Numerous studies suggest your memory is permeable, malleable, and evolving.
It isn’t fixed and permanent, but more like a dream that pulls in information about what you are thinking during the day and adds new details to the narrative.
The shocking part of these studies is how easily memory gets colored, how only a few iterations of an idea can rewrite your entire narrative stored as memories.
Given the fact that there is no way to escape the relentless bombardment of thoughts and emotions coming from friends, family, and social media —
- How much of what you recall is accurate?
- How much of the patchwork is yours alone?
- What about the stories handed down through time or across a dinner table; what is the exact ratio of fiction to fact?
When you replay your life in your mind, you can find it challenging to go back to all the stuff you have accumulated through your experiences.
You stumble upon the fact that only things that go from experience to short-term memory to long-term memory are available for Recall.
Experience → Short term memory → Long-term memory
But to fully appreciate these pathways, you need to have some understanding of your two selves – experiencing and remembering self.
Identity & Two selves
Your experiencing self is the part of your conscious mind that experiences the present moment. It experiences not only what you’re currently doing but also what you’re thinking and feeling as you do it.
The experiencing self perceives physical conditions like tiredness, toothache, or tension, mixing it into a single momentary experience.
The remembering self is the part of your conscious mind that gathers, evaluates, and organizes the selected few things your experiencing self hasn’t discarded yet.
The difference between your two selves can be amply illustrated with a simple question.
Are you happy?
Unfortunately, the two selves rarely give the same reply.
Researchers studied happiness among students during the holidays. With some, they randomly surveyed their momentary state, texting their questions several times a day. With others, they questioned the students at the end of the holiday.
The experiencing self was less happy than the remembering self.
Not surprising, really, because lots of things seem better in retrospect.
This dichotomy is further exacerbated by two of the most common cognitive errors that remembering self is susceptible to.
Error 1 — Peak-end & Duration neglect effect
We remember most clearly the peak of an episode, i.e., the moment of greatest intensity and the end. Filtering anything else into our memories becomes a tough ask.
The error of duration neglect makes sure that we rarely get influenced by its duration while recalling an event.
The following experiment reveals the magnitude of these two errors.
Students were asked to hold their hands in the cold 14-degree water for one minute — a rather unpleasant experience.
In a second test, they held their hand in the cold 14-degree water for one minute, then cold 15-degree water for thirty seconds.
Immediately afterward, they were asked which version they’d like to repeat. Eighty percent opted for the second.
That makes no sense because viewed objectively; the second version was worse — all the pain of the first go-round plus the second’s relative unpleasantness.
In this experiment, the peak experience was identical in both versions — the cold 14-degree water. The ends, however, were different.
The end of the first version (14 degrees) was more unpleasant than the end of the second (15 degrees), which is why the test subjects’ brains recorded the latter as more pleasant, even though from the perspective of the experiencing self (and objectively speaking) it was less so.
The duration never mattered. The students didn’t factor in the experiment’s length at all, whether it lasted sixty or ninety seconds.
Not only that — in fact, there are occasions when the time seems to stretch itself.
Error 2 — Oddball effect
The cognitive neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, David Eagleman, flashed a series of identical images of a brown shoe on the screen and then an image of an alarm clock.
Although the pictures appeared for the same amount of time, the clock seemed to appear on the screen for longer than the shoes — 13% longer to be precise, based on some volunteers’ laboratory experiments.
This misperception is known as the “oddball effect.”
What causes the oddball effect is, in effect, your brain’s boredom with the brown-shoe picture.
The first time you see it, you sift through the picture. Your memory is “taking notes” rapidly. But with each repetition of the image, you devote less and less energy to inspecting it.
By the seventh time, a glance tells you that, well, it’s just that same shoe again. Then, when you see the anomalous alarm clock, you start logging notes again.
The resulting gap in the “density” of your memory — copious notes for the alarm clock, sparse notes for the repetitive shoe — leads to the misperception that the alarm clock picture was displayed longer.
In other words, surprise stretches time.
By breaking the monotonous script, we can lay down a richer set of memories. As Tania Luna and Lee Ann Renninger, authors of the book “Surprise” put it,
“We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel alive when they’re not.” — The book “Surprise”
Creating Distinct Occasions
Celebrating an occasion comes so naturally to us. Be it the unexpected promotion, the birth of our children, or an exotic holiday — we make it a point to transform those moments into something that could be recalled and cherished for a long time.
Since we take a lot of care in scripting special occasions, it makes more sense to create memorable episodic memories in everyday life.
We often spend weekend after weekend with our children, but all those times blend in our memory.
Partly this is because there may be only a dozen moments in our life that capture who we are — those are big defining moments.
But there are smaller experiences, too, in the context of a memorable holiday, a romantic date, or work achievement.
Now that we understand the science behind the creation of memories worth recalling, we can actually apply the techniques from these two case studies to hit a home run.
Breaking the Script: Case Study # 1
Chris Hurn and his family were back from a vacation in Amelia Island, Florida. His little son had accidentally left behind Joshie, his beloved stuffed giraffe. And for that little soul, there was no sleeping without Joshie.
Unfortunately, Joshie was in Florida. So Hurn was left with a predicament. In the long tradition of parents desperate to get their kids to sleep, Hurn assessed his options and concluded that he’d better start lying.
“Joshie is fine,” he told his son. “He’s just taking an extra-long vacation at the resort.” His son seemed to buy it, eventually drifting off to sleep.
Later that night, to Hurn’s great relief, a Ritz-Carlton staffer called to report that Joshie had been found. Hurn asked the staffer a favor. He explained what he’d told his son and asked if someone at the Ritz could take a picture of Joshie on a lounge chair by the pool to show he’d been vacationing.
A few days later, Joshie arrived — along with a binder full of pictures. One showed Joshie lounging by the pool; another showed Joshie driving a golf cart. Others captured him hanging with the hotel parrot, getting a massage in the spa (with cucumber slices covering his eyes), and even monitoring the security cameras in the control room.
Hurn and his wife were delighted, and their son was ecstatic. Hurn wrote a blog post about the experience, which went viral.
Living up to the challenge of Breaking the script
Why did everyone love the story of Joshie?
Because it shattered our expectations.
What do we expect to happen when a boy loses a stuffed animal on vacation?
For it to be returned, maybe if he’s lucky.
Instead, someone at the Ritz spent a few hours zipping around the resort with a stuffed giraffe, snapping absurd pics — It was a strange and magical thing to do.
The Ritz-Carlton created the Joshie photo album because it wants to be known for its extraordinary service. It wasn’t simply a random act of kindness.
The other difference between “breaking the script” and “generic surprise” is that the former forces us to think about the script.
Our lives are filled with scripts:
The script for how your family spends Sundays.
The script for your team’s staff meetings.
The script for going to a restaurant.
The script for hotel check-in.
To break the script, we’ve first got to understand the script.
In fact, a study of hotel reviews on TripAdvisor found that, when guests reported experiencing a “delightful surprise,” an astonishing 94% of them expressed an unconditional willingness to recommend the hotel, compared with only 60% of guests who were “very satisfied.”
So, what’s stopping you from breaking the existing monotonous script in your life?
Making it count: Case Study # 2
In the last week of May 2005, Eugene O’Kelly, 53 years old CEO of KPMG, was told by his doctors that he was suffering from the rare cancer glioblastoma multiforme.
Three malignant tumors, the size of golf balls, had grown in his brain, and there was no cure.
At that time, apart from being the CEO of a $ 4 billion accounting firm, he was Corinne’s husband and the father of two daughters.
His younger daughter, Gina, 14, was still in school awaiting the summer break. In all likelihood, Gina would go back to school in the fall without a father.
“All the plans that Corinne and I had made for our future had to be junked,” he said. “The quicker I scrapped plans for a life that no longer existed, the better. I needed to come up with new goals. Fast.”
On June 8, two weeks after the diagnosis, he stepped down as the leader of KPMG. Then he did what came naturally: He made a plan. “What can I say? I was an accountant not only by trade but the manner, as well as…. [I] did not know how to do anything unplanned — dying included.”
He drew five concentric circles. It was a map of his relationships. His family was in the center circle, and in the outer ring were more distant relationships, such as business partners.
He resolved to unwind his relationships, to “beautifully resolve” them, and work systematically from the outer circle toward the middle. He reasoned that as his disease progressed, he’d want more uninterrupted time with the people who were closest, especially his family.
He kept those unwinding simple — a phone call or an email exchange sharing memories or mutual appreciations. He was careful not to let the conversations grow too sad or morbid; he wanted them to be special.
As the summer went on, he began to spend more time with his closest friends and family. He had moved to the center circle. He said goodbye to his sisters, Rose and Linda, and then, in August, he and Corinne, and Gina went to stay at their second home in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
What O’Kelly realized, in the shadow of his final days, was the extraordinary power of a moment.
Eugene O’Kelly expressed this beautifully in his book, “Chasing Daylights” —
“I experienced more Perfect Moments and Perfect Days in two weeks than I had in the last five years, or that I probably would have in the next five years, had my life continued the way it was going before my diagnosis.” — Eugene O’Kelly
Living up to the challenge of Making it count
Look at your own calendar. Do you see Perfect Days ahead?
Or could they be hidden, and you have to find a way to unlock them?
If I told you to aim to create 30 Perfect Days, could you? How long would it take? Thirty days? Six months? Ten years? Never?
This is the greatest tragedy of our life —
The day rolls into the next, and a year goes by, and we still haven’t had that conversation we always meant to have.
Still, we haven’t created those peak moments in our relationships.
Still, haven’t seen the northern lights.
You walk a flatland that could have been a mountain range. It’s not easy to snap out of this tendency.
It took a terminal illness for Gene O’Kelly to do it.
What would it take to motivate you to inculcate the habit of creating Perfect Moments — memories worth recalling and cherishing?
There is no doubt creating memories worth recalling and cherishing is a worthy goal, but quite often, good intentions to create these memories are frustrated by the urgency of the current list of problems at hand.
As a result, we prioritize fixing problems over creating meaningful memories — definitely not a smart choice.
Once you appreciate the underlying science mentioned in this article, you are better equipped to create amazing memories worth cherishing by:
- Inculcating the habit of breaking the script — so that you could stretch yourself to push boundaries.
- Being intentional about creating worthwhile memories — so that you could make those moments count.
- Creating and celebrating milestones — so that you could allow yourself to experience happier moments.
As soon as you decide to take charge of your memories by creating amazing moments worth cherishing, you are far better placed to surmount the forgettable flatness of everyday life. Dr. Seuss once said that —
“Sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”
— Thanks for Reading.
Originally published on Medium