Let’s start with two myths about memory - Woodmam

Myth #1: Memory is a mental file cabinet. When you think back about your first date or the birth of your child, you just open the appropriate file drawer in your brain and call up that memory.

It would be nice and convenient if this were true, but that’s just not the way the brain works. There aren’t thousands of little “memory files” in your head waiting for you to access them and bring them to consciousness so you can think about them. Instead, memory is all about associations. As an association machine, the brain processes something in the present moment—an idea, a feeling, a smell, an image—and links that experience with similar experiences from the past. These past experiences strongly influence how we understand what we see or feel. That influence occurs because of associations in the brain, where different neurons (or brain cells) become linked to each other. So, in essence, memory is the way an event from the past influences us in the present.

Imagine, for example, that you found an old pacifier between your couch cushions. What kind of emotions and memories would you experience? If you still have a baby in the house, maybe nothing too earth-shattering. But if it’s been a few years since your little one used a pacifier, then you might be flooded with sentimental associations. You might remember how giant it looked in your newborn’s mouth, or how quickly you moved the first time your toddler shared the binky with the dog. Or you might relive that wretched night when you all said goodbye to pacifiers for good. In the moment that you find the pacifier, all kinds of associations rush back into your awareness, impacting your present feelings and mood based on strong associations from the past. This is what memory essentially is—association.

Without getting too complicated, here’s what goes on in the brain. Anytime we undergo an experience, neurons “fire,” or become activated with electrical signals. When these brain cells fire, they become linked with or join other neurons. These linkages create associations. As we explained in the introduction, this means that every experience literally changes the physical makeup of the brain, since neurons are constantly being connected (and separated) based on our experiences. Neuroscientists explain this process with the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, every new experience causes certain neurons to fire, and when they do, they wire together, or link up, with other neurons that are firing at the same time.

Doesn’t this fit with your experience? The very mention of biting into a lemon can make you salivate. Or a song in the car transports you back to an awkward slow dance in high school.

Or remember when you gave your four-year-old a piece of bubble gum after ballet class that one time? And what did she want and expect after every ballet class from then on? Of course. Bubble gum. Why? Because her end-of-ballet-class neurons had fired and wired with her bubble-gum neurons. Neurons that fire together wire together.

That’s how memory works. One experience (the end of ballet class) causes certain neurons to fire, and those neurons can get wired to neurons from another experience (getting bubble gum). Then each time we undergo the first experience, our brain connects it with the second one. Thus, when ballet ends, our brain triggers an expectation of getting gum. The trigger might be an internal event—a thought or a feeling—or an external event that the brain associates with something from your past. Regardless, this triggered memory then sets up expectations for the future. The brain continually prepares itself for the future based on what happened before. Memories shape our current perceptions by causing us to anticipate what will happen next. Our past absolutely shapes our present and future. And it does so via associations within the brain.

Myth #2: Memory is like a photocopy machine. When you call up memories, you see accurate, exact reproductions of what took place in the past. You remember yourself on your first date with ridiculous hair and clothes, and you laugh at your own nervousness. Or you see the doctor holding up your newborn and you relive the intense emotions of that moment.

Again, that’s not quite how it happens. Well, the ridiculous hair and clothes may have really happened, but memory is not an exact reproduction of events from your past. Whenever you retrieve a memory, you alter it. What you recall may be close to exactly what happened, but the very act of recalling an experience changes it, sometimes in significant ways. To put it scientifically, memory retrieval activates a neural cluster similar to, but not identical with, the one created at the time of encoding. Thus memories are distorted—sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly—even though you believe you are being accurate.

You’ve had those conversations with your sibling or your spouse where after you tell a story about something, they say “That’s not how it happened!” Your state of mind when you encoded the memory and the state of mind you’re in when you recall it influence and change the memory itself. So the story you actually tell is less history and more historical fiction.

Keep these two myths in mind as we talk in the following pages about your kids and the way their past experiences impact them. Remember that memory is all about linkages in the brain (as opposed to being alphabetical files to be accessed whenever needed), and that retrieved memories are by definition vulnerable to distortion (as opposed to being detail-for-detail accurate photocopies from your past).
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