Don’t be alarmed, but you are very likely misremembering some things.
A recent study on human cognition concluded that the number of times an event is recalled by the brain affects the accuracy of that memory. The more times we call up a memory in our mind, it seems, the less accurate our recollection becomes.
Embellishments and changes to our memories seem to trend toward what we want from the past, and after a while, we’ve rewritten our own history and created an event that is, in certain ways, untrue.
This isn’t to say everyone is walking around in a fictitious state of stone-cold lunacy. The changes we selectively make to our memories are likely subtle and don’t drastically change the overall understanding of events that have happened in our lives; was it spring or summertime when I saw Hulk Hogan in an elevator? Was I was wearing heels or pumps? Etc. …
Nonetheless, I wonder whether our memories may be only slightly more accurate than our predictions of the future. Our recollection of the past only a little clearer than our ideas of what lies ahead of us.
I like to tell stories, and, as a result, I frequently reflect on the past and the future, ferreting out themes. I spend an inordinate amount of time deeply wrapped up in memory and fantasy. I think it’s what people mean when they talk about daydreaming. If they ever form an Olympic team, I expect I’ll get a call for a coaching position.
There is a point, though — one that I know intimately — when daydreaming can become indulgent, compulsive and get in the way of just plain living your life. Too many are the times when, at the end of a blissfully beautiful day spent out of doors, I find I can scarcely remember what I’ve done or made because my mental transmission has been stuck in reverse replaying the past, probably inaccurately, for hours on end while my life has been happening all around me.
A friend recently summarized a simple lesson from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in which he instructed his students on being present and joyous in this moment. “When you wash the dishes,” my friend told me, “wash the dishes, and when you dig a hole in the ground, dig the hole in the ground.” When you are doing something, try and do that thing only. Be present with yourself and your task.
But Hanh’s lesson is contrary to everything we have been trained to do in the 21st century, a time when the fate of the entire world apparently hinges on people’s ability to multitask, and the inability to do so is viewed as an unacceptable evolutionary liability.
Screw it. I still haven’t figured out how to rub my belly and pat my head simultaneously.
I’ve developed an exercise that’s been successful lately in grounding my thoughts when they spiral out into the ether where they are in danger of being swallowed whole in the turbines of commercial airplanes or being sucked into the lifeless vacuum of outer space altogether.
When I notice my thoughts are becoming scattered, fruitlessly reliving the past, or engaging in elaborate scenes of future events that are unlikely at best, I say these words out loud: I live here. The moment after the words leave my mouth, I take an extensive inventory of all of my senses, and try to be as hyper-aware of myself and my surroundings as possible. I attempt to be quiet in my mind, feeling instead of thinking, taking stock of sensations as mundane as: It’s fucking hot, there is a shadow from the tree on the hood of this car, I hear birds, I’ve got an itch on my elbow, someone is trimming a hedge down the street, the wind is blowing some trash across the road, I feel calm.
The effect is an emotional snapshot of where I’m living right this second- second- second- second. It’s a tool for manually rebooting my awareness that establishes a platform from which I can start the thought process over again, hopefully being more aware of the present. The only cost to the user is talking to oneself for a second. The way I figure it, as long as you’re still aware that talking to yourself seems a little crazy, you can be pretty sure that you are not.