Our brains collect copious amounts of data and information, but only a fraction of it sticks. Why?
Did you know that almost everything your brain perceives, you forget within 20 seconds? Only a tiny portion of memories end up in our long-term memories. Think about it. How many years have you lived? How many months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds? You get the point. In those thousands of days, how many things did you experience? A lot. So why is your brain so selective in ones that you actually remember? Well, usually, you remember experiences that impacted you the most.
The level of impact doesn’t always define memories, but many are created due to this very reason. If you got hit in the head with a ball as a kid, suffered trauma, and got rushed to the emergency room, you’re likely to remember it. A personal example for me is between my Dad and me. When I was little, I was in the kitchen, and we were having a conversation. As a typical snide pre-teen, I said something smart-alecky to my Dad on his way out of the back door into our garage. I could tell he got upset, and I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I put my hand in the door to try and stop him from leaving, yelling, “Dad wait.”
His anger resulted in slamming the door about as hard as he could. Of course, he didn’t know my hand was in there. Immediately, my hand started bleeding profusely. The incident nearly ripped my pinky nail off, and a few weeks later, as I was sweeping outside, it fell off. My Dad was highly upset I got hurt, but it was my fault, and a great lesson learned as a child; don’t talk back or put your hands inside doors.
Why do we remember traumatic stories as mentioned above? Large in part, it’s because of our senses. In that moment of my Dad slamming the door, and over the next few weeks, I felt tremendous pain. I also felt ashamed I talked to my Dad that way and made him so mad. It reminds me of a famous quote by Maya Angelou,
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
It is so true. As humans, we almost always remember how we felt during a given experience. We may not remember who was there, what was said, or how long we were there, but nearly every time, we remember how we felt during it. Our brains are littered with memories containing sensory elements. Have you ever heard a speech by a keynote speaker, valedictorian, pastor, or even a close friend, where you were completely moved?
A scenario in which you were attentive to every word that came out of their mouth, with chills running up and down your body as their message resonated deeply with your heart. I believe we all have at one point or another. You end up remembering the speech years later because it left a profound imprint on your life. Many times, our decisions and the way we carry ourselves are shaped by these very moments.
The mind is powerful, and at times it’s easy to remember the bad. However, this same capacity allows us to remember the good. I feel the older I’ve gotten, the more I focus on my good memories. Of course, no one wants to remember the bad. But as we all know, it’s not that easy. It takes work to focus solely on good memories. Specific scenarios will trigger your bad memories; there’s no doubt about it. But at that moment, it’s your responsibility to push yourself to think about something positive. If you want to rid yourself of negativity, that is.
The opposite rings true when you have a good memory. Instead of letting it come and go for two seconds in your mind, embrace it. Take a few minutes or even an extended period of time to reflect and put yourself back into that moment where the memory was created. In this sense, you’re essentially reliving it. You’ll appreciate doing this because it actually helps you remember the more minor details and extends the shelf life of that memory. Also, don’t ever forget to make new ones.
A true constant, one of the few things we carry with us throughout our lives, are memories. They help us get through the most difficult of times. We can lean into them to reminisce or if we simply need a good laugh. Memories matter as much, if not more, than every other facet of life. Without them, life wouldn’t be the same.