Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Unreliable Narrator

There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for memory.
Josh Billings

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
Anais Nin

In the midst of the long rainy New Zealand winter, I recently found myself searching for a new TV series to watch. I settled on “How I met your mother," as I was kind of fascinated by the premise. A man looks back on his past and remembers, (And also misremembers. A lot.)

The technique is called “the unreliable narrator.” It describes how you can’t really trust the person telling the story, because they’re putting their own spin on things after the fact. If you’ve seen “The Wolf of Wall Street”, it also employs this technique. Often a person glamorizes the good, and perhaps intensifies the bad. The story allows the narrator to look back on the past with a kind of romanticism where they color what REALLY happened with a more charitable interpretation.

Wanna know an even bigger plot twist? This is how EVERYONE’S memory works. It’s fascinating really. I hear the most interesting things in my work when people recount memories from age one or two, (even the crib sometimes.) I don’t have the heart to tell them that this is not accurate or even really possible. For the first 1–2 years of life, brain structures such as the limbic system which holds the hippocampus and the amygdala
 that are involved in memory storage, are not yet fully developed.

But even when memory does start working correctly, there is something important to remember.

Memory lies. It lies, like Shaggy in the song “It wasn’t me” lies…

As a psychologist trained in Adlerian techniques, there is one tool that demonstrates the fascinating adaptability of memory called “Early recollections.” In this technique we ask people to select several of their most enduring memories from childhood and describe the feelings that accompany them. Most people have no problem with this, and even have a little fun with it.

There’s another plot twist though.

Those memories we select? They have more to do with how we're feeling NOW than any kind of reliable recording device. If we’re feeling lonely and rejected in our current incarnation, we’ll select childhood memories that reflect loneliness and isolation. When things are going well, we’re more likely to “remember” the good stuff.

Memory is absolutely unreliable, fallible, and unstable. It even changes over time. Eyewitnesses get things totally wrong within MINUTES!

So why the heck am I telling you all of this??

I’m glad you asked.

In part because much of what I see in patients suffering from anxiety and depression involves two things, regret and guilt about the past, (or in some cases overly romanticizing it,) and worry about the future.

None of those things accomplish anything. And they are both so unreliable. Memory lies, misremembers, over-glorifes, and in many ways gives the past way too much weight over our present. Conversely, anxiety gives way too much power to the future, which, as people like Dan Gilbert have made clear, we are terrible at predicting. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy?language=en

So let’s be really clear here. Our memory play tricks on us, and our built in “prediction” machine, which manifests as anxiety, are often both dead wrong. They’re both very unreliable narrators, one telling stories about the past and one telling stories about the future.

But really they’re both big fat liars.

So where does that leave us exactly? Here. Now. The present moment. Playing the cards that have been dealt to us today. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Today.

Nothing new there really, Lao Tzu said it 2,500 years ago,

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

But what’s interesting is modern science has now gotten caught up with these ideas. This isn’t a “philosophy” as such. It’s absolutely true. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/how-many-of-your-memories-are-fake/281558/

So next time you find yourself endlessly flogging yourself about the past, please remember this. You’re likely not even remembering things as they happened. Remember what ole’ Anais said, “we don't see things as they are, we see things as WE are.”

Also. Those of you going home for Christmas remembering all the glory days.

Yea, you’re probably getting it wrong as well.

Enjoy this year. This December. THIS Christmas.

This is the last little spin around 2015 we’ll ever have.

Make it a good one…

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