Personal note

Last Saturday I gathered, along with 150 other alumnae, at an event staged by my alma mater, Stanford University. Stanford Connects, brought as a road show to Minneapolis, featured micro lectures and seminars by noted professors; President Hennessy informed and entertained us with his answers to questions about the University and its future.

What a thrill to be back in that heady atmosphere of crisp conversations and intellectual stimulation. How sobering it was to remember what it was like being the oldest undergraduate on campus in 1967, a 30-year old divorcee in a sea of 17 and 18 year olds who represented the best and brightest minds in the U.S. Now that was stress! And how lovely it was now to be in present time, successful and confident, and greeted warmly by faculty and staff, and to feel that I really mattered to this great institution.

The event was so stimulating that I did what introverts do: I left early and went home to savor all the wonderful things that had happened, and to refill my energy tanks. Memories of the loneliness and tension I had suffered blurred and softened in retrospect.

Can you change the past?

Can you go back and change the past, or are you stuck with what you remember?

That’s the key: what you remember. The fact is, our brains are stuffed with memories, only some of which we retrieve, convincing ourselves we have a true and complete picture of the past when in fact we have a partial, often negative, picture of our history.

Why the emphasis on the negative? Our nervous systems record unpleasant events, including the cues that lead up to them, rapidly. Then they cling as if they were barnacles on a hull. Pleasant things, on the other hand, are stored more slowly and fade more quickly. Why? Because of our need to learn and respond quickly to threatening signals, signals that might threaten our very life.

Even when the cues simply signaled the start of the third grade spelling test, our bodies react as if that were a life-threatening event.

Once we have this negative mind set, we reach out and store more events that fit the template we have set up. We notice those things that confirm our observation that life is hard. One researcher, Paul Meehl, noting our tendency to become more depressed as we aged, called this phenomenon “aversive drift.”

Can you change this? Yes – by taking the time to focus deliberately on pleasant events, especially before bedtime every night. During the day, sniff the roses, hear the birds, respond to the smiles you encounter.

You can actually build up a foundation of good memories that will attract more and more that are similar – and even start recovering pleasant memories from long ago that you haven’t accessed in a long, long time.

The warm encounters I had at my recent alumnae meeting triggered wonderful memories: approaching the campus as the sun rose, gilding the buildings with soft rosy gold,  thinking “this is my campus”; exploring the cubby holes and stacks of the old library, finding treasures in bound journals that had nothing to do with what I was supposed  to be studying; strolling down  a rural lane in summer, surrounded by silence, bees humming in the foliage, only to discover that one of those ivy-covered buildings was a high energy physics lab – all of these memories had lain buried beneath remembrance of the stress of living – and being evaluated – in a highly competitive atmosphere.  But that wasn’t all that was happening; lovely things were all around me, and apparently were being recorded in my brain.

It’s not about re-creating the past; instead, you highlight the pleasurable aspects of it, eventually  overriding the more unpleasant events.

And if you think of the past as what happened a second ago, you can start consciously to work on building up a warm, confident past now, and watch how it influences those old storage files that reach far back into the past.

The Confident Introvert

“What are they afraid of?” my department manager used to ask after meetings in which a number of department members sat, silent and resentful, while he was unaware that his habit of springing surprise agenda items and asking for an immediate decision was very upsetting to these talented, educated introverts. Understanding, appreciating and utilizing the skills of introversion are foreign ideas to some – even to introverts. Now you can read about it in
The Confident Introvert.
Order now at http://www.ConfidentIntrovert.com