The Big Idea
Our brains are bombarded by information every moment of every day. Some of that information becomes part of us, our memories – hence why some say our memories are our greatest treasures. Even with today’s smart phones, there is still so much merit to capture a moment, what was going on for us and how we felt so that we can remember it.
Regular @the52Tips follower, tester and fellow The52Project experimental partner Nikki Yeomans got in touch to say that she did this ‘thing’ ever since she was young: blinking her eyes to capture moments when she was really happy, that she wished to remember in the future. Nikki was a little sheepish in admitting this BUT, like so many, happened to be hitting on a known technique that can totally become a positive habits for us to use and even stack with other #Tips.
Much of what we do day to day is lost to our memory. In fact we tend only to remember the extremes of happiness and sadness or pain – actually usually with an unconscious bias to the negative rather than the positive. This week’s top tip is that blinking, taking a moment to take a mental ‘snap shot’, can really help us remember the positive moments in our lives, so that we not only remember them but reflect and see more of these kind of events in the future. If this sounds a bit wacky or too good to be true, then read on.
Got it…What’s the Science
As part of our daily routines we go to sleep. One of the many active functions that sleep does is filter out relatively irrelevant information from the previous waking hours as well as storing more relevant information.
The question is really what is the most important information? This is always what matters most to us as an individual and will consequently be unique to each of us. We call this information ‘salient’. Salience comes from our individual ongoing narrative of what matters based on our own evolving beliefs, values and what we hold most dear. These are moulded by circumstances and environment (context). The brain also uses salience as a means of evaluating the importance of the incoming information, whether it is worth paying attention to, whether it ‘resonates’ with past experience and so ‘fits’ with our picture of the world and what is going on it i.e. our perception. These form our ‘frames of reference’ or paradigms (see Stephen Covey’s & Habits of Highly Effective People). This will affect how likely this information is to be deemed relevant and so stored. Equally though, events that ‘fit our pattern’ don’t stand out and so are also often dismissed as “yep that’s what I expected”, so don’t challenge our unconscious model / frames of reference – rather maintains the status quo of habits that we already have, meaning that the events don’t stand out as much, and rather go relatively unnoticed because they are just reinforcing our general beliefs and values.
So the real trick to whether something is remembered or not really comes down to how much attention we give it. The more attention or significance, for better or worse, especially if it is associated with high emotions and other sensory information, the more likely it is to be encoded into a long term memory.
Work done by Matthew Walker (see links below) and colleagues has shown that in early stages of sleep (Stage 2 of non-REM sleep) are associated with a special type of neuronal ‘firing’ called ‘spindles’ that can be detected by using special equipment that looks like you are wearing a wired swimming cap (electroencephalogram – EEG). These ‘spindles’ have been associated with the cortex (the upper / outer folded parts of the brain) taking on this information from more temporary, deeper memory storage usually associated and involving the hippocampus – so that they become longer term memories. This also includes learning and ’embedding’ motor skills and tasks, as memory, like learning a new piece of music on the piano. Repetitive motor skills actually involve another part of the brain too, called the cerebellum (‘little brain’). Stage 2 of sleep is also involved in clearing the short term memory capacity of our brains for the following day. Without this clean out we have less capacity to make memories the next day. Memory is one the many reasons why sleep is so important to our health, functioning and wellbeing and we will no doubt be revising sleep in coming #Tips.
As we have said before: “where the attention goes, the energy flows”. The conscious spotlight of attention is controlled by our prefrontal cortex (PFC). By blinking and taking a mental snap shot, we are using our PFC to deliberately and consciously instruct our brain that that event is / was significant to us and so to put a pin or flag in that firing sequence for the day, so that when the brain is busy reviewing what to remember in stage 2 of it’s sleep cycles that night (we tend to go through many), it will be appropriately noticed and processed into longer storage in the cortex. The more these long term memories are later recalled the more likely that they are to be remembered.
It is important to say here that memory is not like a camera or digital recording. Our memories are incredibly malleable and influenced by the meaning and context that we ascribe to them – biases – often unconsciously. This in part leads to all sorts of problems in the reliability of say witness statements of crimes (see the links below). That said, the principle of taking a mental snap shot stands. Even more, if we close our eyes, we are likely to be giving our brain a even more of an opportunity (space) to focus on the previous incoming image and other senses and how they link to how we are feeling. So blinking probably better helps us to capture the image, senses and feelings and put a flag on that firing as important to be processed as such in our sleep making it memorable and more rememberable.
As we said our memories are very much a part of us, which is literally physiologically true. The more we recall these happy memories the more likely we are to think of them as significant and so wish to repeat them – or at least to try and find places and opportunities to experience the feelings associated with them.
As we have spoken before, our brain has a crafty way of filtering and attending to relevant information in the moment. It is called the reticular activating system (RAS). So by saying to our brain that we like and want more of this kind of experience, we can actually start to ‘programme’ our brains to unconsciously pick up and orient to incoming information that is likely to indicate that kind of experience is, or could be, happen in the near future. You maybe sceptical of this, but how about playing this game: every time you see a yellow car, say “yellow car” aloud*. Usually, two things will happen: firstly you will notice a lot more yellow cars than you thought or were aware of beforehand and; then, after a bit of practice, you will suddenly start frequently noticing yellow cars even when you are not looking for them. It turns out a friend, colleague and fellow tester Andrew Jenkins also plays this car game with more specific red minis with black roofs. This is our brains using and deliberately but unconsciously orienting to incoming, and then consciously noticing, specific information. Importantly this affect is even more noticeable if you add a level of competition (making it a game) or fear to what you are looking for. This phenomenon can also be usefully used as part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help those with say post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
So not bad Nikki, from a throw away comment of something you do you have helped us explore and understand how we can better use our brains to get more, and be more, of what we want in life.
* A big thank you to John Finnemore, author of the BBC radio comedy hit Cabin Pressure, for the ‘yellow car game’ that has kept our family entertained on many a journey.
Watch our #Tip19 on the Instagram Live Recording….
This is yet another “might as well” stacking tip for us! As Nikki says she was inspired to do this tip again following Hannah Powell (aka @thecatussurgeon) talking with us live on #Tip11 – Making Small Moments Matter. So how about stacking this tip with some more of the many positive feeling tips we have already explored together such as: Morning Sunshine (#Tip4), Treat Yourself (#Tip13) or Brew & Dance (#Tip16).
We don’t think there are any down sides to this one – other than not doing this while you are driving or too much in front of a first date or work party that is going really well.
We would love to here how you get on with this #Tip so please do let us know how you get on by clicking HERE.
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