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Memory Illusions And Why Few Learn From Their Mistakes

The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory—at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating–not by actually retrieving–the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time. — Daniel Gilbert

One of the main reasons people don’t learn from their experiences is because their memories of what happened are inaccurate. The memory of what actually occurred can be so distant from the truth that the memory is worthless as a learning tool thus the same mistakes are repeated over and over. So much for experience and wisdom going hand and hand!

I experienced this firsthand when reviewing the film footage for The Boys Are Back In Town kettlebell workshop in 2007. As most of you know, my brother filmed the workshop and we turned it into a DVD set. Some of the footage surprised me, for example, the final panel discussion was much different than I remembered: My memory was that when asked a question I’d get to the point quickly, but in reality, I went on big tangents, taking forever to get to the point! Needless to say, that footage didn’t make the cut. This experience was extremely helpful and every workshop since I’ve applied the “less is more” concept. At least that’s what I think I’m doing…according to my fabricated memories!

The concept of subjectively fabricating our memories brings to mind an episode from a popular 80’s sitcom. The television family are victims of a robbery and a visiting police officer interviews each family member to report what happened. The problem is each family member has a vastly different memory of what took place. Each family member recalls their own brave actions throughout the robbery while remembering everyone else as petrified with fear. This is another example of the mind’s trickery: putting all our actions into a positive context to support, and even justify, those actions. By the end of the episode, the police officer realizes each family member’s testimony is worthless. What really happened is up for grabs, even the people who were present don’t know.

Another reason for our faulty memories is a tendency to recall, and interpret, events in order to meet the expectations of others, e.g., we see something and may classify as “terrible” but if popular opinion names it acceptable, we’ll file it away in our minds as “acceptable”. One of my favorite shows, M.A.S.H., aired an episode regarding just such mental fabrication. On the show, the main character, Hawkeye, fondly recalls his memories of growing up with his cousin. Hawkeye remembers his cousin as a mentor and close friend; however, after probing further into his memory with the help of a psychologist, Hawkeye recalls his cousin’s attempt to drown him by forcing his head underwater and holding it there. Pulling him out of the water at the last minute, the cousin has the audacity to inform Hawkeye he’s just saved his life! Hawkeye’s family thinks the cousin is a great guy and loves him, so rather than telling his father what really happened, Hawkeye accepts a mental fabrication that his cousin saved his life instead of attempting to drown him. Yet the truth was stored deep in his subconscious mind and destined to surface in the future. Sometimes we find truth too difficult to accept because it could shatter our world view. Rather than facing it as is, we process it into something we find more agreeable. Then we’ll push the truth into the back of our minds, filed away within stacks of do-not-open boxes.

While the truthful memories are stored away in the subconscious mind and therefore not easily accessible, our refined, easy-to-digest fabrications are kept readily at-hand, ready to feed our self-delusions.

Over many years of providing people with online training services, I’ve realized the best way to get people on track and keep them there is by insisting they keep training journals. When the client’s goals are losing fat or putting on size, nutrition journals are also critical. A recent study of 685 people showed that subjects who kept accurate diet journals lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.

What is so magical about writing things down? Assuming you’re honest and keeping a detailed journal, your journal keeps those truths in front of you. This means you record your food intake immediately to ensure accuracy, i.e., after eating breakfast you write down every single thing you ate. Cream and sugar in your coffee? If yes, you’ll record it promptly and later do the calorie total and a macronutrient breakdown for each meal.

f you “cheat”–maybe you have a Snickers while driving to work–you write it down. After a week of keeping a detailed diet journal, the truth is in front of you. You’ll understand why you’re not losing weight and can make the necessary modifications to get on track. Relying on memory is a delusional no-brainer, people tend to recall only their healthy food choices any given day. My online clients are shocked when they review their daily food logs and tally calorie numbers. I’ve had people estimate their daily caloric intake at 2000 calories only to discover they are, in fact, consuming 3500 calories…or more. I’ve had clients describe their sugar consumption as “insignificant” when in truth it was “colossal”.

Remember, for your journal to be accurate (and therefore, useful) you must record your food intake as soon as it goes down. Don’t make the common mistake of waiting for the end of the day, then relying upon a faulty memory to summarize the day’s meals–your journal is sure to be inaccurate. Yes, this means you must carry a pen and notebook (or another recording device) at all times. A nuisance, you say? Sure it is. You can always opt, as most people do, to remain overweight. You have your choice of burdens: either carrying a pen and notebook along everywhere and recording your meals or continuing humping around fifty extra pounds of fat. You have free will to decide which is the bigger nuisance. Hopefully, your decision won’t be colored by fabricated, faulty memories, justifications, or outright lies.

Dietary indiscretions aside, another subject regarding our flawed memories to which most of us can relate is credit card statements. We receive our monthly credit card statements and are shocked by the balance. We think there must be a mistake, scrutinizing each expenditure, knowing that certainly, we couldn’t possibly have spent so much money. After adding everything up, we discover the statement is correct and worse, just because we don’t remember spending the money, doesn’t mean we didn’t. Overspending with a credit card is tantamount to overeating. Most people don’t bother keeping track of either, thus finding themselves fat and broke. Unpleasant, perhaps, but an honest assessment.

Another arena requiring detailed record-keeping is running your own (successful) business. Imagine relying on memory to recall the money made and spent each month! This is an effective way to go out of business with the quickness. Ask me how I know. This is how I ran my previous business many years ago. I was so busy trying to drum up business each day that I didn’t bother keeping track of how much actual income I was generating. Since I was always so busy, always working hard, I deluded myself into believing I was making money. Well, why wouldn’t I be making money? I was working my ass off and we all know hard work goes hand-in-hand with money-making, right? When, finally, I calculated my income against my expenditures, the truth right there: I was not making money and I was going further into debt each month keeping a defective business afloat.

Fortunately, I learned a tough lesson from an otherwise meaningless business venture. Meaningless because it didn’t represent me, nor what I wanted to do with my life. My current work, on the other hand, is meaningful and one factor that allowed me to build this successful business is accurate accounting. I can tell you exactly, right now, my income–down to the cents–and no, this isn’t in my head, but a detailed business journal.

When you know your exact number, there is a natural human drive to improve it. The context doesn’t matter: whether you’re trying to lose fat, gain muscular size and strength, or make more money, you need to know your number. When you know it, you’ll work hard and amass creative energy to improve it. When you remain ignorant of your number, you’re inclined to rely on fabricated memories, or worse, lies.

Our memories are insufficient, and potentially only as real as the movies which entertain us. Making an honest, accurate assessment of yourself may seem depressing, but the truth, in all its forms, is nothing less than beautiful. What’s depressing is lying to yourself and choosing to remain in the matrix of your mind.

Live Life Aggressively!


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