We are the sum of our memories

We think of life as a list of our experiences, but we are unreliable narrators when it comes to our own lives, says Dr Asma Naheed

Memories make us who we are. They create our perspective and guide our habits and actions in ways we barely even realise. During our lives, experiences, friendships and conversations are stored in our consciousness and help us to build our identity. We use these experiences to learn about ourselves and our environment, and to further understand the world. We are, therefore, composed of past, present and future all at once.

However, what we store are not facts, but rather our interpretation of facts. There is room to rewrite the script. ‘We are the architects of our memories,’ says Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. ‘It is, therefore, essential to ensure that we deposit good memories in our memory bank so that, in the future, we are more likely to make withdrawals of happiness.’

In other words, we are the sum of our memories. And those memories can influence us in both negative and positive ways. As we grow, memories work as a guideline for our future-planning. We make a note of our likes and dislikes, and begin associating memories with certain behaviours, places, people and situations (the negative association of ‘triggering’ now passing into common lexicon). Our emotions and feelings play a huge role in connecting and cataloguing our experiences, which in turn build our worldview and shape our ideology and personality.

As such, we should be careful not to underestimate the value of history in human development. This is the reason why many traditional cultures dedicate so much time to teaching their children family history. As Confucius said, ‘Study the past if you would define the future.’ Or as the solemn aphorism uttered by George Santayana would have it, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Sadly, although we now live in an age of information, our busy modern society rarely takes the time to look behind itself. Most of us are not paying much attention to where we came from; those ancient ties, experiences and wisdom seem no longer relevant. We live in a time of constant change and progress, but it’s worth remembering that history and its connections really do matter. As the saying goes, he who controls the past can control the future.

If we take on the wisdom of those who came before us, our perspective widens and our thoughts and memories change. A great example is the recent pandemic. While it was most definitely a challenge, many found it helpful to consider the struggles of previous eras – the world wars, the Spanish Flu epidemic – and note the many benefits we enjoyed that our predecessors did not, including phones, Zoom, television, medical intervention and even just a warm bed at night. There is great comfort to be found in the knowledge that there have been unimaginably difficult times before and that they did, eventually, end. That this too shall pass.

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga said, ‘History is the interpretation of the significance that the past has for us.’ In other words, it’s all spin. How we – or others – choose to see things, choose to remember them, is what really matters in the end. The significance of history and the role of memory are therefore very similar. Both are guides that teach us to understand the present.

While experiences come and go, our memories can last a lifetime if we let them. My advice is to take out your camera or grab a pen – and make a note of the good ones.