The Illusion of Memory

Psychological scientist and author, Dr. Julia Shaw, studies what she refers to as “false memories” that “corrupt our identities, politics and justice system.” It is our perception of the past that forms our emotional story and sometimes, even facts.

My father is just shy of his 8th decade on earth. He’s “been around the block,” filled with a lifetime of experiences that has caused him to grow, like all of us, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Yet ask him about his collection of baseball cards from the 4th grade and he’s still there, sitting in Mrs. Kofkin’s class, watching the thin, pinch-faced woman snatch his cards away from him.

“She never gave them back,” my father says, a flood of emotion in his voice.

Psychological scientist and author, Dr. Julia Shaw studies what she refers to as “false memories” that “corrupt our identities, politics and justice system.” It is our perception of the past that forms our emotional story and sometimes even facts:

“Everyone thinks that they couldn’t be tricked into believing they have done something they never did, and that if someone were telling them about a false memory, they would be able to spot it. But we found that actually, people tend to be quite susceptible to having false memories, and they sound just like real memories.” (Dr. Shaw, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences)

This idea that we can falsely believe something that didn’t happen to us or that we never experienced directly fascinates me. So, I asked my father recently to share his well-told childhood experience with Mrs. Kofkin again.

“What did Mrs. Kofkin look like?”

“I don’t remember. But she took those cards from me. They were my cards. They weren’t hers to take. She just grabbed them from me.”

It occurred to me that the details of his memory weren’t important; what mattered was the feeling provoked—after so many decades—from the memory itself.

It was the feeling of the event that made all the difference, that kept his childhood “violin song” playing. I thought, this isn’t even about a stack of baseball cards from 7 decades ago. There’s something more here.

“Was Mrs. Kofkin mean to you?”

“No…she was just doing her job.”

“Who are you upset with then?”

(And here it came.)

“My parents. They knew how much those cards meant to me. I begged them to speak to my teacher and get them back. But they said they didn’t have time.”

So, there it was: my father’s memory that stirred a feeling of pain wasn’t about Mrs. Kofkin or the baseball cards. The teacher and cards were an illusion, preventing this almost 80-year-old man from seeing the source of the hurt: the message from his parents that his needs and wants didn’t matter.

We talked more about his parents not realizing they were hurting him, that they were busy running a store and doing, like most parents, the best they could. The pain they caused their son wasn’t personal or intentional.

One childhood memory and a world-altering perception to digest.

Yes, our perceptions create our reality, but our past perceptions do so as well. Our memories are like the wake of a ship, offering a trail of perceptions that buoy us along to the ever present. We have the power to consider that trail and perceive it through a different lens and by extension, shift the course of our present and future.

So, the next time you find yourself beating the drum of a past unpleasant or even traumatic event, dive into that memory until you unearth something you didn’t notice before. You just might find a perceptual treasure to steer you in a more peaceful, promising direction.

Sources: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200408085517.htm

Trigger Happy

Our triggers just might be a hidden gift waiting for us to discover…

We all know the term “triggered” at this point. A good decade ago, the word may have referred to a psychological meaning related to PTSD or some other mental disorder. Yet today, you don’t need letters after your name to be familiar with the slang of someone who gets “triggered.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “triggered” refers to “when someone gets offended or gets their feelings hurt, often used in memes to describe feminist, or people with strong victimization.”

Regardless of whether one is experiencing an emotional reaction based on a genuine trauma or mild offense, the reaction is real: the blood boiling, the heart racing, the urge to scream, cry or express negative sentiment. The individual experiencing the “trigger” is in emotional pain.

But what if we could look at the cause of one’s trigger as an opportunity to grow? What if identifying and acknowledging our triggers could be the first step towards changing? What if we considered our triggers as gifts to open and observe rather than Jack-in-the-boxes to avoid at all costs?

Consider Terry Wright, the sixty-five-year-old woman charged with resisting arrest after refusing to wear a mask at a Bank of America in Texas last month. Wright is certainly entitled to an opinion on the mask issue; she is not, however, legally permitted to go mask-less into a private institution (i.e., Bank of America) that requires a mask for all visitors.

For whatever reason, following Bank of America’s mask policy to wear a mask for a mere visit triggered Wright. It triggered Wright enough that she perceived herself as a victim: 

“Hold up! Hold up! Some old lady [Wright] is getting arrested here!”

Wright’s trigger created more misperceptions:

This is police brutality.” The video cam shows no police brutality and audibly offers several bank witnesses flat out disagreeing with Wright.

Yet there was one form of brutality: Wright’s cruelty to others and herself. Her inability to reflect on her actions and continue to see herself as a victim instead of an agitator is the true crime. 

The irony: Wright stated on a phone interview, post her childish scene at the bank (and Office Depot shortly after):

“My civil rights were violated.”

One of the first definitions of civil is “cultured and polite, as in someone who is civilized.” Wright’s behavior was the antithesis of what it means to be civil, to think about others within the community and our interconnection to each other. Wright was too steeped in pain, lashing out at others instead of reflecting inward.

The next time we feel triggered, consider an alternate choice; consider the opportunity for growth. Ask yourself:

What is the lesson here for me?

What does my potential reaction say about me?

Is there another way to perceive this situation?

Is there another way to react in this moment?

When we consider a potential trigger to be a blessing instead of a curse, our perception changes and so does our reality.

*Sources: KPRC 2, Vocabulary.com, Urban Dictionary

A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.