By Sanah Thakur
If ‘life’ was being served at an ice cream parlour and positive memories were toppings, I’m pretty sure there would be too many cherries on top. The good life is popularly characterised by a collection of mostly ‘happy’ experiences, with a dab of negative ones. As a student of Psychology, I’ve found the line between real life experiences and our memories of them, extremely intriguing. Are we getting greedy with our positive memories, spending our vital thinking energy on increasing their time lines? Are the negative experiences getting discarded as not worthy of sharing? Can we actually play a role in shaping our memories and choosing how we remember them?
Imagine you’re at the beach. Someone whose company you really enjoy is sitting next to you. The sun is out and your favourite song is playing. You just finished devouring a creamy lasagna and it’s time for a nap. The day has been so perfect. Suddenly, your back jerks up in reaction to the ice tea the waiter just dropped on you. Your back cramps and you can’t move into a comfortable position. Your friend is on the goddamn phone and you just heard your sunglasses crack as you turned. That beautiful day is now just an annoying memory of the day you went home sticky and in pain. However, the time spent enjoying the day was proportionately higher than the time spent wiping ice tea off your back. So was it truly a bad day or did you recall it irrationally?
Most people trust their memory more than they trust someone else’s. This means that we believe our memory is constantly recording our experiences, storing them and bringing them back to conscious awareness when we choose to recall them. Though the process can be credited for its accuracy, the fact is, memories are always tweaked by our emotional lens. Memories aren’t a thorough record of facts and events, but rather, a series of highlights often judged by how we felt at certain intense points. This psychological heuristic, is known as the ‘peak-end theory’ and explains how we’re actually irrational with our memory of events.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-Prize winning Psychologist, defines this cognitive shortcut as the way in which we judge an experience largely on how it felt at its peak, most intense emotional point, and its end, rather than on the sum total of every moment experienced. In simpler terms, our brain edits parts of an experience to recall it effectively through the worst or best moments and how it ended, instead of remembering details about how we felt the entire time. So recalling the ice tea episode was easier than those smaller details of the sun, beach, friend, music or lasagna experienced that day.
The problem today is, even if we have a negative experience, we put pressure on ourselves to over-exaggerate the emotional response to or the frequency of positive experiences. With the magnifying effects of social media, the types of positive experiences I’m now aware of are streaming in from highlight reels all across the world - Canada had an amazing coffee, Vietnam went on a crazy holiday and Spain just got a new job! So even if my ice tea wasn’t picture perfect and my muscles cramped, the easy way to retouch that memory is to edit it. This solution might enhance the superficial event reel of my life, but what about the real-life experience of that memory? Negative experiences are recalled by the brain to ensure they are avoided in the future, so our physical and mental survival is guaranteed. By adding more short cuts to an already established peak-end rule, we’re messing with a potentially dangerous feedback cycle. If we don’t work towards improving the way we deal with events when they are extremely painful or uncomfortable, we’re more likely to decrease our tolerance for such events. This will lead to the automatic categorisation of various challenging experiences into the AVOID zone. Then we’ll spend more time staying away from negative situations rather than facing them head on, making us more prone to dissatisfaction and in turn, less resilient.
So what happens when the ice cream parlour has run out of cherries? Are you going to pass on the ice-cream? Whatever you decide, shouldn’t be based on the availability of cherries, but on your real appetite for ice cream. Life will move on whether you have positive experiences or negative, and the one thing you can work on is shaping the memories of future events. Some tips to take home:
1- Aim to end your experiences on a good note, finding positives from the experience to focus on.
2- Don’t let the little annoyances disgruntle your entire experience.
3- Laugh at your discomforts, so the memory becomes humorous on reflection.
4- Try not to dwell on the negative elements of a situation
* The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah
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