5 Ways Your Past Memories Become Mere Illusions

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We don’t always know the things we think we know. Let me explain.

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002. He did so through a career in which he uncovered a number of biases and flaws in the logic and reasoning behind many of our decisions.

His book Thinking Fast And Slow presents his findings in all their glory, using examples and questions that lead us into making the same mistakes we’re reading about.

One such example is a simple math problem: If a bat and a ball together cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

What Kahneman calls our system one – our fast, intuitive, preconscious mind – screams to us an answer of $0.10. It’s our system two — the slow but analytical problem-solving self, or our consciousness – that needs to kick in and tell us that answer is wrong. The right answer is $0.05.

Our minds are constantly in a loop of predicting the future and checking to see if the present matches up. We don’t notice this, it’s an act of system one. The only point that we become aware of the predictions is when they turn out to be wrong.

Your system one alerts you, the system two, whenever it needs help deciphering what’s happening. A loud sound, a bright light, an answer that just doesn’t add up, all lead to cries for help.

The main reason we don’t use the system two all the time is that it’s slow and energy consuming. Your intuition works much faster but does so by cutting corners and relying on heuristics. Consider that while you may have worked out the correct answer to the bat and ball problem, it likely took more time and effort than it did for your intuition to give you the wrong one.

That fast mode of thought is not all bad — it leads to us being able to read a person’s body language in a split second; to judge the movement of traffic and anticipate where everything will be in each passing moment; and importantly, it leaves the powerhouse system two to tackle other more complex problems.

The illusions presented here come from the lapses in system one, they take advantage of the shortcuts that it relies on so that they may pass by unnoticed.

“To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.” – Edgar Allan Poe

1. The Fluency Illusion

The speed with which we process information tells us how well-predicted it was, as we take it in faster when we’ve been prepared for it.

The priming effect occurs when the presentation of one item influences the awareness of another. Those who have read the word “tea” will subsequently read the word “coffee” quicker. Things run smoothly when the environment is predictable, and it’s predicted based on what’s come before.

When the information we digest is fluent and easy to process, there is less need for system two. When processing fluency is low, our analytic selves get more involved, making us more capable of picking out the falsities in the information.

The lack of disruption to processing gets confused for representing truth, as the relative ease gives no indication that more thought is needed. That which is easy to process is also often considered beautiful, and that beauty is seen as more familiar, even when it’s the first time we’ve encountered it.

“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” – Oscar Wilde

2. The Power Of Story

Our understanding of the world is shaped by a hunger for narrative that rises out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events.

Make It Stick

Our entire life is one big story. We understand it as the past, present, and future with our goals and desires as the forces driving the narrative.

It makes sense then that we love this type of presentation. When we read or listen to something that isn’t a story, we use only our Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain, structures related to language. But, when we become immersed in a story, our sensory cortex and insula light up, areas that are related to sensations, emotions, and self-awareness, and we release oxytocin.

It is nearly impossible to avoid basing one’s judgments on subjective experience.

Make It Stick

Cohesion is an important aspect of the narrative. One study found that overhearing two sides of a conversation is less distracting than overhearing only one side. The authors of Make It Stick point to the cause being that we are compelled through our narrative seeking minds to infer the missing half of the conversation.

This goes back to the fluency effect — if we become more engaged to stories and these stories are easy to process using system one, we may take the stories as having much more truth to them than there is. A clear advantage to the clever marketers adopting storytelling.

“Nostalgia is like grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect.” – Owens Lee Pomeroy

3. The Curse Of Knowledge

The power of empathy rests in being able to inhabit the emotional and mental state of mind of someone else. The curse of knowledge states that it can be problematic trying to take the mental state of mind of someone less smart, even if that person is your past self.

Developed by the economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber, the curse is applied to those better-informed, obstructing their ability to take the perspective of one without as much experience. The curse of knowledge makes us overcompensate our ability to learn from and predict other scenarios.

The hindsight bias is the effect of believing that an event was predictable only after it’s occurred. When something happens, our minds make a cohesive story of it. By making this story we present ourselves with a fluent and compelling narrative, that we feel was and is perfectly predictable. Usually, it was anything but, yet our confidence in the story raises our belief that the future is also predictable.

“Your self is created by memories and your memories are created by your mental habits.” – Rick Warren

4. Memory Implants

Every time we recall a memory, that memory is reopened for modification. The pliable nature of our memories when they’re in the forefront of the mind is akin to a word document on your computer; each time it’s open, the text is easily altered.

The new memory is saved, until the next time it’s opened, when the changes start again. This cycle can lead to some strong yet markedly untrue recollections in later life.

Elizabeth Loftus conducted a study in which the participants were instructed to remember as many details as they could about a set of experiences they had as children.

Loftus had specified the experiences to be written about, having learned of them from the participants family. One experience however, while being laden with places or people that pertain to the participant, was completely made up: being lost in the mall at age 5. Afterward, 6 of the 24 involved said they could remember the false event, and 5 failed to identify that event as the odd one out, even after being told there was an impostor.

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” – Dr. Seuss

5. Contagious Memories

You might be beginning to doubt how many of your memories are true to your own experience, but it also turns out some of your memories could be true to someone else’s experience.

When two people that witness the same event get together to talk about it, the result can be an amalgamation of memory, leaving both people believing they had experienced some details from another person’s perspective.

Just as people’s behavior changes in group settings, so can their memory. The implications stretch across the legal realm, calling into question eyewitness accounts and testimonies. Elizabeth Loftus found that even the subtle changes in the leading question after an event can alter the individuals perception of what happened.

“Live a life worth remembering.” – Bruce Lee


We wouldn’t get very far without our memories. They’re not only there to give us something to look back on, they help us predict the future, to learn new languages and skills, and they give us something to reminisce about.

Memories may appear very malleable, and the illusions they come with may threaten our confidence in them, but they are what make us. The very story of our life would be nothing if not for memory.

But, be critical of what you believe; don’t accept something as true simply because you remember it and question where that memory came from and whether it’s been influenced. Kick in the system two from Kahneman’s book, the analytical and powerful self.

With some added awareness and insight, we’ll suffer less from the illusions and feel more confident in what we know. Are there any of your memories that you’ve called into question?

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Hannah Hutyra

Hannah is a digital marketer with extensive experience in blogging and B2B software. She holds a BBA in Marketing from the University of Texas and has written online for over five years. Hannah enjoys sharing knowledge on productivity, motherhood, and how to maintain mental and physical health.