Of Mice, Men and Memories

You’re not telling the truth, and you may not even know it.

That’s the implication of a recent experimental study into memory and how our brains store these most important — and unreliable — ephemera of our lives. While at the surface it sounds like a bad thing, there may be a surprising upside.

Using lab mice, neuroscientists at MIT conducted a series of experiments to sniff out the source of memory. By manipulating the neurons of these poor rodents’ brains, the researchers were able to identify the genetic switch that triggers the formation of a memory and, more interestingly, use it to shape and create false memories.

The subjectivity of memory is likely no surprise to many, especially those of us who have been married or in a long-term relationship. There’s nothing quite like a spousal disagreement to illustrate just how fallible memory is and how dependent it is to our own experience and perspective.

Many a marital discussion, to use the polite term, centers around how incredibly wrong the other partner’s memory of a particular incident is and just how absolutely right your own is. It’s not about who did the dishes last; it’s about whose experience should be more valued.

That inherent tension in memory and experience is the spice — and the salt — of life. Novelists and filmmakers have long tapped into the uncertainty of memory and the subjectivity of experience as a narrative device.

Unreliable narrators make for some of the most intriguing characters and one of the most effective plot devices to get readers thinking and questioning. At the end, the best movies and books leave us wondering just what really happened and eager to dive into debate with others. As much as we like to believe our own experience and memory is objectively true and valid, it’s the subjectivity that is the most interesting to explore.

But back to our white-coated rodent friends. The crux of the MIT lab experiment involved combining a real memory — such as learning the ins and outs of a new cage — with a new experience such as a painful electric shock when the mouse was placed in different cage.

Researchers found that the mice affiliated the unpleasant experience of being shocked with not just the new cage, as would be expected, but also with the safe cage they were previously placed in. What’s more, the new experience persisted when the mice were placed in any new cage. Researchers supplanted the earlier memory of a pleasant pain-free cage with a new, painful and artificially generated one.

At first glance, this is hardly headline-worthy material. But when you dig in deeper, it raises interesting points for how we manage people. Long the realm of hypnotists and psychologists, the powerful mix of memory and experience may be primed for management innovation.

Take onboarding. Researchers and practitioners have long agreed that the first few days of, not to mention the weeks leading up to, new employees’ start on the job are crucial to their perception of the organization and their future performance.

An awkward, disorganized and ad hoc approach to onboarding can plant negative memories deeply into employees’ experience. People, just like those poor zapped mice, are susceptible to the power of negative experience to shape not just their immediate interactions with a boss, team and co-workers, but also the broader experience of employment with the organization itself.

Whether that memory and experience is true or accurate is beside the point. A false, unreliable and inaccurate memory is just as powerful and persistent — if not more so — as the real deal. And we may never be able to overcome that experience to foster a more positive, lasting and productive relationship.

But then again, we just might. Memory is subjective and malleable and prone to being manipulated, whether deliberately or unwittingly. And that can have negative consequences from a workplace standpoint. But talent managers also have a powerful role to play in shaping positive memories, whether it’s through onboarding and career development or fostering a powerful and lasting emotional connection between employer and employee that pays dividends for years to come.

Memory may be unreliable, but it is powerful. That’s a lesson for both mice and men … and management.