Decoding Memories

One thing we are not accustomed to think about is how important our memories are in shaping who we have become. Memories drive our decisions, feelings, and thoughts. Let us set aside all books you have read and phone numbers you have memorized for a moment. Think about things you have seen, heard or experienced, and that gradually formed your concept of the world that surrounds you.

When living a moment, your senses capture everything you perceive – either consciously or subconsciously – and store it as attributes of a memory. When asked about an event in your life, you will bring up a memory composed by the characteristics you perceived: the strength of the wind, the smell of the water, the color and brightness of the light in the sky, the taste of a meal, etc. The stronger these attributes are, the deeper your memory will register that event. The opposite is also true: the more meaningful an event is for you, the easier it is to remember what you have sensed.

However, memories are not composed only of whatever your senses captured. It is essential to understand the importance that people and things play in an event; I call them “actors.” In the first stage, everything you perceive seems just like part of a whole landscape. Next, your brain starts to identify individual pieces of that landscape, and they can be a person, a tree, a dog, a car, a building, a song, a couple, or anything else. Your brain then directs your perceptions to these actors individually and links everything your senses captured to such actors, finally storing it as a memory. Think of the importance of first impressions; they do not relate to people only, but to anything that you experience for the first time. That is the moment when actors begin to exist for you, and that will be how you stored that memory.

All of the moments that you experience are composed of as many actors as you perceive – or I could say, “create.” As I mentioned before, the more relevant an event is for you, the deeper your memories of each actor will be. You may not remember a bad service you received from a waiter ten years ago when dining alone, but if that was a great dinner with a friend, chances are that you will even remember the waiter’s face. Some people will have more difficulties in selling a car than others because of the feelings they have for it. Maybe that car was an actor in important events such as driving special family members – also actors – somewhere. Those people, when talking about their car, will mention times when they drove it, and someone or something especial was also present.

The amount of times events occur also contribute for the importance of memories. In the previous example, the car was an important actor because it participated in especial events. Even one single moment could have made that car meaningful, depending on the relevance of that occasion. However, you strengthen your relation with actors as you keep storing more memories involving them.

People die around us all the time, but why don’t we care? It does not mean that we do not care, but that we have few or zero memories involving those people. Some people seem more especial to you than others due to the strength and amount of good memories you have stored and which involve them. I have already lost family members of whom I have just a few memories. It is an odd sensation to know that I am not as impacted with such a loss as other members of my family are, but I can imagine how profound it would be for me losing someone with whom I have grown.

There is a reason why we say that “time will heal”: as time moves, memories start to fade. Therefore, events we once experienced and that had bad impact in our lives start to lose importance as the memories about them lose their details. While that still do not happen, we make decisions based on avoiding the same type of circumstances, so we do not pile over bad memories.

In the other hand, we seek events that allow us to relive the sensation we had and that will store more good memories about them, especially if they involve the same actors. Some therapies today work on erasing or rewriting memories that an individual once stored and that today haunt them. Some memories are easy to recall, while others are carved deep into the subconsciousness but still play a big role in determining one’s actions.

I am almost sure that you already had – or will soon have – the moment when you look back at your life and tell yourself “wow, time flies! I am getting older!” When you do, have in mind that you will have just realized that your memories shaped everything you are and that you are afraid that time will not be enough for you to relive memories like those ever again.

I confess that my biggest fear today is not losing what or whom I have with me, but losing memories I have built with all of them.


Note: this is an individual article based on observation and previous studies. It is not intended to be linked to or refer to any theoretical material or other publications although similarities may exist.

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