How the Past Creates You

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As I mentioned in the previous blog post, which  was about the book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (mouthful of a title, I know), experiences have a very big impact on the formation of who we are. Of course, we come into this world with a genetic make-up, which makes us predisposed to certain things. However, it is the environment that has the final say when you get down to it.

By environment I don’t just mean the tree outside your house or the flowers in your neighbour’s garden, though they may be a part of it. To get a better picture, we’ll have to include past events , people we have met, and memories we have made. Or do we?

As it turns out, it is only our memories of events and of people that count in the end, because the experience itself dies, and is thus lost, once it ended. However, as Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his TED talk, some of these experiences (and only a select few) enter our memory, where they are spoiled by impressions and the inevitable effect time has on these treasured and tricky thoughts.

So, back to our topic: it is actually the memory of an experience that influences us, consciously. When you have to choose, say…a store from which to buy, you can’t help but replay memories of past visits to certain stores, and, in some situations, memories of what people have told you about those stores. If in one store you happened to end up with a really good find at the end of the shopping experience, you will probably be inclined to choose it over the other ones, despite the fact that the other things you purchased there weren’t all that wonderful.

Why is that important in the creation of who we are? Well, that’s because many times (or more often than not), our memories are distorted. When it comes to thinking of ourselves, they are distorted  in a manner that highlights  (perhaps exaggerates) our qualities, and our good deeds, and minimizes the negative things we’ve done. This is why most people who one would think of as morally impoverished are able to live their lives happily and without remorse. To sum up what we have so far: memories often make us seem better than we are, to ourselves.

What about the subconscious? Though it is not yet very well known, we all do realize, to some extent, that  it influences us in many ways. This article discusses how studies have shown that neurons in the brain of mice, which normally work while a certain experience is underway, also fire before encountering  a new exposure, similar to the one dealt with in the past. As it is explained, this is probably why different individuals have different ways of approaching  the same problem: because the past shines through, providing us with guidelines on how we should act in a novel situation.

What all of this information means, in practical terms, is that the past leaves a very strong mark  on which the presents exists, and the future is built. It is only with extreme difficulty that we can escape a certain pattern which was drilled in our minds, and the trouble is that very, very often, the difference between being capable of breaking free from the chains of the past and remaining captive, are some genes which we didn’t choose. Add to this the fact that even when wrong, we have a tendency to appreciate and understand ourselves quite a little bit more than needed, and the effect is even more pronounced: We refuse to change, because we are programmed to believe we are all right the way we are. Perhaps not great, but pretty darn close.

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