One of my favorite podcasts right now is Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. Although I have loved his takes on Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw style (Season 1) or why McDonalds fries just don’t taste as good as they used to (Season 2), two episodes of Season 3 (episodes #3 and #4) on memory have been the most substantially life altering.
Any summary will not do them justice (so go listen!), but the gist is that our memories are extremely unreliable. In his Free Brian Williams episode, Malcolm talks through the memory of his own experiences on 9/11 and how his story differed substantially from his neighbor who told him about the attack! After 9/11 took place, a number of researchers interviewed people on what they were doing at the time of the attack, and then followed up at 1, 3, and 10 year intervals. They picked 9/11 because it was a “flashbulb” event; where you were and what you were doing at that precise moment is seared in your brain (or is it?).
What they found was that the majority significantly changed their story after the first year and were extremely confident that their new story was actually what happened. Through a process of memory consolidation – moving from short to long term memory, we rehearse these memories and the memories become extremely vulnerable to change. What is crazy about this process is that we accept the new memories as truth even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (in the case of the 9/11 study, written evidence for what they said had happened at that time)!
These two episodes on memory share the incredible stories of the “world’s greatest harmonica player” and the Brian Williams story. Both stories feel like famous individuals grasping for further fame as they re-write their own history. Brian Williams’ story goes from riding in a helicopter in Iraq to taking fire and being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq. He eventually recants the embellishment (he only heard about another helicopter going down the same day), but even the helicopter pilot who did take him couldn’t remember if they took fire. The story feels wrong and self-promoting. But is it? Or is it just a fault of his mind consolidating multiple memories – the story of riding in a helicopter in Iraq, the story of taking fire and the story that he heard about a helicopter going down?
I consider myself to have a fairly good memory. Not infallible, but definitely better than most. I can recall events/dates, precise locations of objects in a room or on a page, and memorize things very easily. This over time has built up an Ego (yes, intentional capitalization) where I will pick my memory, my story over that of anyone else and immediately issue judgement if the other party disagrees with what I remember.
Because my memory is that good right?
Or what if it really isn’t?
What if all these memories – or at least the majority – are just stories that I have been telling myself? Maybe there are pieces of truth, but the events…in precisely the way that they have been laid out in my head…are just how my memory has consolidated over time?
Based on all of this, this is how I think I should show up differently. How will you?
- Shut up my Ego. No, I am not perfect, so don’t act that way.
- Listen first, speak second. If I jump immediately into my story, how do I give space to hear and understand others?)
- Give others the benefit of the doubt What actually “happened” matters less than how I engage with my friends/family/coworkers in their own story