Amy Brann’s book “Neuroscience for Coaches” has got me thinking again. Last time (blog of 12 02 16) we were exploring the ability of language to ‘nudge’ us, and there is a chapter in her book that ties in so well with my thought that:

…what we think we heard isn’t necessarily what was said!

We are faced with this reality every day: the never ending opportunity to misunderstand and be misunderstood: so when my teenage children are in a rage and throw back at me words that I didn’t use, but that they have heard, (so when I say “would you like me to help with that” and get back “you’re always telling me I’m no good at stuff”), I shouldn’t be surprised!

But the subjectivity of our experience goes so much deeper than what we hear and experience right now, and Brann’s book has encouraged me to revisit something that I have known for a while: that often (always?) our memories are faulty.

It’s another every day thing that we know to be true and that neuroscience has given an official name to. The label of False Memory is something Brann describes as

…a psychological term for a memory that might be a fabrication or a distortion of an event – or a detail within an event – that didn’t happen. It is also conceivable that emotions or feelings may be falsely recollected.

And there is bad news and good news in there!

I have spent over 20 years working as a coach, and longer than that developing my understanding of myself, and I know that the bad news can be that many of us have beliefs that are not helpful, and that those beliefs are built on our memories of the things we have experienced. One unhelpful belief I held for years was that I was unlikeable, because I had a memory that, at a very young age, I overheard my grandmother tell my mother that I was precocious, and that no one likes a precocious child.

But the good news is that we can do something about it. The ability to reshape our memories is a very powerful and helpful one if we choose to use it that way. A number of  Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques are based on this principle.

The technique that helped me with the ‘precocious’ memory is something called a ‘time line’. By stepping back through my life to the point where I believed I heard my grandmother make that comment I realised that I couldn’t be sure that event had even taken place, that if it did then at the time I was too young to know what precocious meant and that I didn’t even know if she was talking about me.  When I returned my mind to the present day things felt different: my understanding of that memory was different and my belief about myself and my likability was changed.

This ‘time line’ approach is extraordinarily powerful. And small but important examples of this happen all the time. It could just be the opportunity to really think about the memories you have of your last presentation, annual review, lunch with the in-laws (!), job interview… If those memories aren’t helping you, if all you can remember is how horrid it was, how badly it went, how rubbish you were, then maybe you need to revisit that experience and explore what actually happened. Was it really that bad, what went well, what was enjoyable, what comments were made that encouraged you but that you have chosen to forget? If the memory isn’t helping, research it, re write it, choose it.

Brann shares lots of interesting insights in to what the brain is up to when it is re-writing our memories, why it does that and what we can do about it. One of the experiments that demonstrates just how easy it is to create a false memory implanted the idea with a group that they had shaken hands with Bugs Bunny (picture from when on a trip to Disneyland. Up to 35% of the group believed this to be true. But Bugs Bunny is a  Warner Brothers’ character: he is never at Disneyland!

The evidence so far is that none of us are immune to false memories. As Mark Twain puts it:

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not!

But the bottom line is that if we believe it happened then it is true for us, and we build our lives from that point on with that as our reality. To know that we have a choice about what we do with our memories gives us options. If something you believe about yourself isn’t helping you then you can choose to double check the memory that the belief is built upon. You might want to make sure it isn’t a false memory, and maybe create a memory that is more helpful.

Thank you for reading this Choose You blog. Lovely to get all your comments. Everyone is a bit shy and is still sending me their comments to my email address ( which is great, but if you would like to use the comments box below (you do have to sign in just to check that you are not a spam robot!) please do, as then other readers can see what you’ve written and can join in the conversation.

More thoughts in a couple of weeks, Jenny