Physical vs. Narrative Memories

I have a fairly good memory for events and things that happened. It comes in handy for stuff, like remembering programs, exercises, bike routes, etc… I remember these things well because they happened. My body traveled the bike route, I have witnessed people squatting correctly, I thought-up and wrote down the program. At a very simple level, a measurable amount of matter moved through the world allowing for the potential for physical memories to be created. These memories are static, nothing can be done to reverse them because we cannot go back in time. Normal people will not debate them as they are fact.

But I create other memories too, ones that are sort of based on reality, but not entirely. These memories are the result of my narration of what is or what has happened. Given that the voice in my head is there most of the time, it is easy to mistake what it says as fact vs. just being a subjective account of what happened or is happening. When it’s sunny outside and you hear yourself thinking “it’s sunny out” there isn’t an issue. The sensory input matches the narration. You KNOW that it is sunny out because you can see that it is sunny. But when the narration doesn’t match sensory input, you begin to tell a story that moves or keeps you away from reality.

An example, a new couple are watching TV. A fit attractive guy comes on the screen and the female says to her new boy friend “why can’t you look like that?” and laughs. The new boy friend gets angry and calls her a selfish and leaves. The relationship ends. Seemed crazy to hear but it’s really simple. The physical memory is clear, two people watch TV, one says something, the other says something else in anger and they stop making physical memories.

The narrative memories about the event are two completely different stories. The women made a joke, she didn’t consciously intend to make the guy feel anything negative, it was just an observation, possibly. His response was unreasonable. He got angry and there is no place for that in her life so she ended it. Her narrative is understandable and when she repeats it, it can be presented in a way that makes him seem like a complete knob.

His narrative is very different. He’s enjoying the evening with his new girl friend. He’s feeling comfortable and good for the first time in too long. In her he’s found someone who likes to exercise, cooks well, which are things he needs help with because he’s gotten kinda fat since his marriage failed a few years ago. Suddenly on the screen he sees something he wants to be like because he’s feeling like he deserves it. Life is coming together, he’s feeling good, he’s got a great girl friend who believes in him. He’s feeling better than life and out of her mouth he hears her say “I wish you looked like that” followed by a mocking laughter. He got angry, he called her names. He didn’t mean to, but why would she rip him from the happiness and remind him that he’s a failure, lost marriage, lost the house, shaky handle on reality and a fat disgusting piece of garbage? He’s better off with out her, better off without anyone. This shit isn’t worth it anymore.

I get both stories. He heard confirmation of his insecurities in her words and she wasn’t aware enough of his insecurities to NOT to say what she said. Their narrative stories are completely different although their physical memory is basically the same.

Since the narrative memories are not the same for both people, both are not accurate and given that they are fairly different from the physical memories, both need to change a little bit to reconcile these differences. And both SHOULD change to eliminate the dissonance between reality and perception. Experience, knowledge, counseling, time, evolution of thought or enlightenment are the things that will change narrative memories. Anything that provides more information can be applied to narrative memories and change them.

And your narrative memories SHOULD be adjusted repeatedly over time when new information becomes available.

The reprocessing of narrative memories tends to be the result of uncovering the cause of something that did not work, and the impact can be profound, changing an enemy into a friend when you realize their motives were not sinister. In the example above, the guy may realize that his girl friend wasn’t very aware of how sensitive he was and that he needs to fix himself before he gets into another relationship; words should not cause him to respond the way he did. She may realize just WHAT he heard vs. what she said. His response wasn’t appropriate but neither was what he heard. Sensitivity and caring are important in a relationship and when starting one you should find out what things make your new partner feel like crap and avoid saying and doing them.

You cannot change the past, but you can change the story you tell yourself about it. And you should change these narrative memories when you get new information. It’s an important part of putting the past away and learning from life.