Memory is a powerful tool for creating and sustaining intimacy.
Five well-established principles guide the functioning of memory, and when we understand how these principles work, we can build better relationships by shifting our behavior in a way that plays to the power of memory. These are simple changes, but the effect they can have on our connection with loved ones is profound.
Try the following exercise to experience these principles in action: Read the following 40 words one time only, left to right. Don’t study them; just read each word in turn, or have someone read the words to you. Then write down the words you remember.
Snow car pole deck table bottle light family inspiration sand plant rug cellar gate pillow trunk paper road knife stool string zone coat cup Madonna light wind tree rope stamp tape light coal card pick truck cape pilot desk frame
Almost everyone who completes this exercise remembers the first two words from the list (snow, car). Psychologists refer to our tendency to remember what comes first as the “primacy effect.” Most people also remember the last two words (desk, frame), a phenomenon researchers call the “recency effect.”
We’re also most likely to remember elements that stand out from or are incongruous with other elements in the group (Madonna), elements that have a special personal association in the context (family, inspiration) and elements that are repeated (light).
So how can the principles of memory help us cultivate more happiness and a deeper sense of connection with our loved ones? Let’s consider them one at a time:
Primacy. Our brains most powerfully remember elements and events that come first. So we benefit by making our first experiences each day positive ones, starting with how we wake up. Many people begin their day with the shock of a buzzer alarm or the reliable, but often depressing, radio news. That primes you with grumpy feelings even before you crawl out of bed, and you’re likely to carry that negativity into your first interactions with family (“Why do you always take so long in the bathroom?!”).
That grumpy interaction then becomes the “first experience” that lingers in each family member’s mind, coloring how he or she perceives each other and setting the tone for interactions the rest of the day.
Instead, begin your day on a positive note to make the most of the primacy effect. Wake up to inspiring music or craft a simple ritual to start your day. A few minutes…