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How's Your Memory? Here's Why It's Not As Good (Or Bad!) As You Think

The surprising science of memory will blow your mind.

When something changes in our lives, we often become nostalgic for the way things used to be.

Just recently, for example, I spoke to the executive team at a fast-growing company, and they told me that nostalgia is holding them back. As the company changes, many people keep lamenting the way things used to be.

If you ever catch yourself doing this, I suggest stepping back and appreciating what’s actually happening in your brain. Because you are not actually remembering a wonderful and perfect past.

Know what you’re doing instead? It’s pretty mind-blowing.

But to really appreciate it, you first need to understand how our brains store memories.

Our memories do not work like a video camera.

The brain does not capture most events in great detail, and it does not store them as complete experiences. Instead, it divides memories up into lots of tiny pieces, and then stores them separately. When you’re in the act of remembering something, your brain is reassembling all those pieces into a coherent whole. But not all the pieces survive.

Felipe De Brigard, a Duke University associate professor who studies how memory and imagination interact, compares it to reassembling a dinosaur’s skeleton out of unearthed bones. The skeleton isn’t whole; it’s in a pile of little pieces, and a paleontologist must reassemble all those pieces into a coherent object. But some of the pieces are missing, which means the paleontologist must use other information to fill in the gaps. We must do this with our own memories, too — and what is the source of our additional information?

It is our imagination.

“Memory and imagination are really not entirely different faculties,” De Brigard tells me. “Memory and imagination are profoundly intertwined. Many of the processes that enable us to remember the past are also processes that enable us to imagine not only possible futures, but also to imagine alternative ways in which past events could have occurred.”

We imagine the missing parts of our memories, and then we experience those imagined memories as real memories.

Why would we do this? De Brigard says you must consider what memory is actually for.

De Brigard says that you can find a clue in a phenomenon called fading affect bias, which is the scientific term for what happens to our memories over time: The negative emotion of negative memories tends to fade faster than that of positive memories, so we remember good things much better than we remember bad.

That’s not to say we always completely forget bad things; we can retain lessons from bad experiences. But the bad stuff fades faster; its edges get shaved off. You can see this appear in ways large and small. There’s the ex you keep gravitating toward, because you forget just how miserable you were in the relationship. But also, studies have found people who expressed a kind of nostalgia for terrible events, like Polish people thinking fondly of life under communism. More recently, in 2021, there was a wave of people expressing nostalgia for life during Covid lockdown.

Although fading affect bias isn’t always productive, De Brigard said its ultimate purpose is to be a defense mechanism: “If our memories of bad events were as negative at the time of retrieval as they were at the time of encoding, it would be a very burdensome memory to live with,” he said. That’s beneficial—it means that, for most of us, we aren’t forced to relive sad or cringe-worthy moments. We remember the fact of them but cannot conjure the experience of them. (Extreme trauma can change this, of course. That’s where therapy can be helpful.)

In other words, our memories aren’t designed to be time capsules. There’s no biological point to that.

“Remembering is not only an issue about bringing mental representations of past events to the present,” De Brigard says, “but sometimes we use memories to help us at the present, or sometimes we use imagination to help us in the present.” Why do we reminisce with friends? Why do we remember the happy times in our relationships? It isn’t to honor or tell the true story of the past. It’s to foster those relationships in the present, so that they’re here for us in the future.

This is ultimately what our brains are built for — the future.

Instead of being faithful to the past, our brains want to remember just enough to help us go forward. That doesn’t always work, and nostalgia is a funny byproduct — but now that we know what’s happening, we can loosen our grip on the rosy past we partially remember.

Then we can build a tomorrow worth remembering clearly.

I go into a lot more about this in my new book Build for Tomorrow, which is all about how to thrive in times of change!

I’m On a Billboard!!!

How's Your Memory? Here's Why It's Not As Good (Or Bad!) As You Think

Whoa — that’s my book on a Times Square billboard!

It’s funny: When big things happen, it’s hard to process them in the moment. I remember looking up at that and thinking: “Hey, neat, there it is!” Only later, when I saw this photo, was I able to really step back and appreciate how big a moment it was.

So that’s my advice to you now: When things move fast, find a moment to pause and step back. You’ll like what you see.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Malte Mueller