Successful people always find ways to manage their emotions and thoughts. Steve Jobs, for example, used mindfulness meditation to remain centered and focused. Many CEOs have specific morning rituals to start their day on the right foot.
The neuroscience behind these behaviors is well-documented. Exercise, for example, releases endorphins, which are your brain’s natural and entirely safe equivalent to heroin. Endorphins create mild euphoria and a general feeling of positivity.
Unfortunately, mindfulness and exercise can be time-consuming. Wouldn’t it be great if there were something that you could do quickly and immediately that would permanently improve your brain’s performance?
Well, it turns out that such a technique does indeed exist. If you’re interested, read on.
Memory Isn’t Reality
Most people believe that their memory is like a video camera. While they’re aware that they forget things, they assume that the stuff that they do remember is accurately represented in their thoughts.
That’s an extremely misleading way to think about human memory. In fact, when you remember an event, your brain reconstructs that event from pieces and parts, many of which are completely unrelated to the actual event in question.
Your brain fills in details and even major points based upon what seems to “make sense” to you at the point in time when you’re doing the remembering.
As you do this, you’re not just creating the memory but also manufacturing elements of the memory that your brain will use to put it together the next time you remember it.
Put another way, if, when you’re feeling depressed, you remember a sad event (like a death in the family), your brain will manufacture details and connections that will make your memory of the event more depressing next time you remember it.
Conversely, if you’re feeling upbeat and you remember a happy event, your brain will manufacture details and connections that make your memory of that event even more positive and powerful the next time you remember it.
Memory and Your Story
The key concept here is that your brain re-crafts your memories based upon what “makes sense” to you at the time. It interprets (and reconstructs) your memories to make them fit within the “life story” that you’ve constructed from your memories.
Because humans are storytelling animals, your brain scrambles and re-assembles your memories into a plot that you use to define who you are and what things mean. That, in turn, changes how you remember things.
It’s like you’re the main character of a novel who is also the writer of the novel and is constantly editing the chapters that have already happened in order to ensure that the remainder of the book (the future) continues in the same direction.
For example, perhaps you’ve met somebody who has the proverbial chip on his shoulder. Because that person’s life story consists of people insulting and slighting him, his brain will not just interpret events through that lens, he will constantly misremember events so that they’re successively more insulting.
You may even find out that, in his mind, a time when you paid him an honest compliment has become a memory of when you insulted him.
By contrast, perhaps you know somebody who tends to be sunny. Because that person’s life story consists of generally positive events, she will tend to remember things as being better and happier than perhaps they were at the time. You may even find out that, in her mind, a time when you were insulting to her has become a memory of you giving her a backhanded compliment.
Memory thus creates a feedback loop with your basic outlook on life, where your perception of yourself and events in your life either spirals downwards (like Mr. ChipOnHisShoulder) or upwards (like Ms. Sunny).
In other words, because you are creating your memories as you’re remembering them, you are at every moment creating your own identity and defining your life story. Which leads me to this powerful neuroscience hack.
Editing Your Memories
Once you realize that you’re creating your memories, you can change them simply by deciding that they fit the life story you want for yourself, rather than the life story you’ve previously used to organize and unintentionally rewrite your memories.
In practical terms, you can become the person you want to be by deciding to have that life story, and then intentionally going through your memories and examining them for details that support it.
While those memories will have the same general structure (like “I met with A and we discussed B”), your brain will create the details to reinforce the life story you’ve intentionally selected.
For example, suppose that early in your career, you missed a specific opportunity to make a lot of money, and, as a result, you periodically kick yourself for making that mistake. Every time you remember that event you’re creating an identity as “the loser who made a big mistake.”
Now, that may not be your entire identity or the entirety of your life story, but it’s going to influence how you make decisions by creating an ongoing fear that you’ll miss another such opportunity.
Suppose, however, that you willfully and intentionally decide that your life story is a successive series of wins that led you to where you are today. With that story in mind, revisit the memories of that event and you’ll “remember” why it was the right decision.
For example, in the mid 1980s, I was offered a job with 10,000 shares of founder’s stock in Rational Machines. If I’d taken the job, those shares would be worth many millions of dollars.
Or so I told myself for many years. However, once I decided that my life story is that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, right here and right now, when I remember those events, I recall details, like a weird feeling I had at the time that this wasn’t the right job for me.
Did I actually have that feeling? There’s no way of telling. But I remember feeling that way and, as a consequence, I see the decision not as a mistake but as a victory. I resisted the temptation to go for the big money at a job where I’d be miserable.
In fact, now that I think about it, my life is full of situations where I did what would make me happy rather than what would make me a lot of money. Or at least, that’s how I seem to remember those events…. (Get it?)
It Works Automatically
If you don’t believe this method works, I suggest you try it. Explicitly define, to yourself, who you want to be and what your life means. Then, one by one, go through your memories of your life and your career.
Your memories will now reinforce that life story and self-definition. Amazingly, your brain will create details and events that make the memory coherent and congruent with who you believe yourself to be.
This is not a long process. You can make the life story decision in a few seconds. The moment you do, your brain will start restructuring your memories to fit that story rather than whatever previous story you were telling yourself.
Here’s the incredible part: Because your brain is creating the memory even as you remember it, you won’t know what parts are “real” and which parts your brain has “fabricated.” Unless you’ve got a videotape of the event, you’ll never know the difference.
Your brain will automatically transform your memories so that they power you forward in the direction that you want to go.