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 of meditation, yoga, stretching or reading from an inspiring text will add positive feelings to your morning.
Also, consciously plan how you will greet your family. Prepare to say something positive and uplifting. These daily messages make a big difference in the quality of your family interactions.
Another critical “first” is when you or your loved one arrives home from work. Work can be stressful, and it’s easy to begin commiserating with each other when you walk in the door. But after years of greeting one another with complaints about the difficulties of your day, you will have accumulated a powerful, and negative, memory bank of “first impressions” — impressions that begin to color the way you see your partner.
If you take the time for a loving hug and some words of affection when you walk in the door, you’ll set a more positive emotional tone — and a better, more supportive framework for eventually sharing the challenges you choose to discuss.
Repetition. Have you noticed how advertisers repeat their product names over and over again? Why? Because people remember things that are repeated (and we tend to buy the things we remember). In the same way, your loved ones remember the things you repeat. If your partner or child regularly hears negative messages, he or she will “buy” those messages the same way consumers buy familiar products — and feelings of loving connection will disintegrate.
Consistently communicating positive messages to loved ones has the opposite effect. They will reinforce self-confidence and strengthen loving bonds.
Outstanding. Familiarity is a double-edged sword: It’s comfortable, but it can also be boring. Novel experiences combat the dull edge of routine and make for enduring, positive memories.
New experiences don’t have to be grand gestures; there are opportunities for creativity and surprise in every day. Do one of the household chores that is normally your partner’s responsibility. Explore a new route on your evening walk. Treat your partner to a foot massage or sign up for tango lessons.
Personal Association. We all want to be appreciated for our uniqueness. Recognizing and celebrating each family member’s individuality fosters feelings of connection and intimacy.
One of the most powerful ways to recognize someone’s individuality is by being fully present with him or her at least once a day. Make a habit of really listening to each other’s stories. Practice active listening by asking questions and occasionally repeating something you’ve heard to affirm that you understood. Giving over your full attention conveys love and respect and strengthens family bonds.
Recency. We also tend to remember events and experiences that happened most recently, so it’s wise to bring special attention to the last interactions we have with family each day. Close the day with your family just as you started it: with loving words and sweet sentiments. Be aware, too, of other departures, like setting off for work or school, or leaving for a business trip. Take a moment to connect and share your love before you are whisked off into the rush of your day. Both you and your loved ones will remember and cherish the positive send-off.
Traditional cultures had an intuitive understanding of how we remember. They used rituals at transitional times of day — upon waking, before meals and prior to sleeping — to imbue each day with meaning. Modern culture has fallen away from these traditions, but with mindfulness and a willingness to shift our behaviors to play to the power of memory, we can create our own rituals to bring more intimacy to our closest relationships.
Make Memory Work For You
Here are some key opportunities for using memory to build better relationships.
We remember events that happen first, so greet your partner with genuine affection in the morning when you wake and after work when you arrive home. This fuels positive long-term memories and sets up a constructive framework for approaching challenges when they do arise.
We remember things that are repeated, so be mindful of what you say to your spouse and children, and how. Repeated positive messages bolster self-esteem, self-confidence, and feelings of love and affection, while repeated negative messages have the opposite effect.
We remember things that are out of the ordinary, so seek out novel activities with your loved ones: visit new places, listen to new music, try new restaurants.
We remember things that are personal, so take time to authentically listen to your partner’s stories and perspective at least once a day. He or she will feel loved and accepted.
We remember things that happened recently, so make every “last” interaction a positive one: End each night with a hug; kiss goodbye before heading out to work each morning.
This originally appeared as “The Things We Remember” in the September 2009 print issue of Experience Life.