Memory, perceptions and positive thinking

In the last couple of posts (sadly more than a month ago – sorry) I talked about awareness and attention, remembering, forgetting and how, under certain conditions, our memories are altered.

Our memories are fragile. We do not commit to memory everything we see, and we do not remember everything we have committed to memory. We can never be one hundred percent sure that we remembered something. Moreover, our memories guide what we expect to see, what we expect to see guides what we pay attention to, and what we pay attention to determines what goes into our working memory, and we retain most those things that have meaning or we understand best (that which is already in our memory banks). In this post I’d like to explore the relationship between memory, perception and positive thinking.

Positive thinking, affirmations, neuro-linguistic programming, vibrational energy and so on all promise to change your world. Can standing in front of the mirror every morning and saying “I am the greatest” really change you? I for one was very skeptical, until I began to see how the power of thought evidenced in my own life, often quite by accident. But it’s one thing to believe that affirmations lead to change, it is quite another to find some neuropsychological evidence for it. But this is my mission… There a myriad of explanations given for why positive thinking effects change; some are based on cognitive-behavioural therapy, some touch on depth psychology, and then some embrace an altogether mystical approach. There is much in cognitive neuroscience to support that the notion of “as a man thinketh in his heart so is he” (Proverbs 3:27).

A thought experiment:

Suppose that as child I wasn’t very good at cross country (this isn’t far from the truth). Every memory I have would have the emotional tag “running is bad”. And suppose that I was also told repeatedly that I would never be able to run a marathon. Eventually I believe that I could never run a marathon and that belief would influence not only my attitude towards running, but also my running itself. Just imagine how I might feel if someone told me that I had to run a marathon in 12 weeks. to say that I would be nervous would be an understatement. Some positive thinking models would say that since I do not believe I can run, I would not be interested in an advertisement for a free running programme (“what would be the point, I’m doomed to fail”), and hence my attention would not be drawn by such an advertisement and I would therefore miss this opportunity to train. Of course, it might happen that I really do seek out a running coach, but even so the fear of running is so intense that when I think about the event I become increasingly anxious.

Affirmations to the rescue… Fortunately I happen to know an excellent motivational speaker and she suggests that all I need to do is wake up every morning and say to myself¬† “I love being able to run and run and feel great”. If I do this enough times, and really picture myself running effortlessly through fields of daisies then I’ll soon be running marathons. She tells me that by doing this, I’ll trick my sub-consious into thinking that it loves running and this will trigger a chain of events that will result in me being open to opportunities I just wasn’t tuned into before (that is, I would become interested in training programmes and hence would notice an advertisement for one). She even says that my desire to run would improve. I might even enjoy it.

If you are anything like me you might be thinking, “mmm… it sounds nice, but that is too airy fairy for me”. As I mentioned before, whether it was intentional or not, I have seen the evidence in practice. The kicker though, and the part I cannot quite explain is the total mind shift that comes with the change in thought. Some have said that once you alter your self image within your sub-consious, tension is created between your current reality and the future reality you have thought out for yourself. This tension either leads you to change your current reality or rationalise your current reality.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, our memories are fragile, and pliable and subject to conscious or unconscious change. My current theory is that the more you think about what the future might look like, the more those old negatively tagged memories fade away and are replaced with new “implanted” and positively tagged “memories”. Someone once said that we’re a moving average of ourselves and I thought this to be very true. We are not bound to the past, and we can literally change what we remember and those memories feel. Eventually, I believe that I really can run a marathon and I begin to act in accordance with this belief – I begin to act as though the future reality is now.

The trick is to shift the balance of power to the future reality to the point that the current reality becomes unreal!