The Difference Between Thoughts & Memories

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #420) and blog, I talk about the difference between thoughts and memories. This podcast is part 4 of my series on the different parts of the mind. 

As mentioned in my previous podcasts on this topic, The Difference Between the Nonconscious, Subconscious & Conscious Mind (part 1), How to Tap Into the Nonconscious Mind to Unwire Trauma & Toxic Thinking Habits (part 2), and How to Listen to & Learn from Your Mental & Physical Warning Signals (part 3),  when you consciously engage the nonconscious mind through deliberate, intentional, strategic, and proactive deep thinking, you draw your thoughts, with their embedded memories, through the subconscious mind and into the conscious mind. When these thoughts arrive in the conscious mind, they’re in a malleable state, which means you can change them and reconceptualize them—you can change the way they impact your life.

But what exactly is a thought? And how is it different from a memory?

The mind is made up of trillions and trillions of thoughts. A thought is a real physical thing that occupies mental real estate in the brain and mind. A thought is built into the brain as you use your mind—that is, as you think, feel and choose. Thoughts are located in three different places: your brain, your mind, and the cells of your body.

Inside the thought are the embedded memories—so a thought is made of memories, and there can be any number of memories, thousands even, in a thought, just as there are hundreds or even thousands of branches on a tree. For example, the thought could be that I am concerned about my family member. Within this thought, there will be hundreds or more memories related to this concern. The thought is therefore the big picture, and the details of the thought are the memories.

There are three types of memories in a thought:

  1. Informational memories are all the details: particulars, facts, data, associations, links, and so on associated with that thought. These are like the branches on a thought tree.
  2. Emotional memories are the feelings associated with the information memories. These are like the leaves on the branches of a thought three.
  3. Physical memories are the physical embodiments of the sensations experienced at the time the thought was built, which are coupled with the emotional memories and informational memories. These are built into every cell of our body and are re-experienced when we recall the informational and emotional memories, because these three parts of the thought are inseparable.

Thoughts are potentially limitless. Each thought is a literal universe, because each thought is made up of limitless memories. Thoughts also keep getting updated, as well as entangled with other related thoughts, like the endless root system of a sweeping forest. And your mind is always in action, which means you’re always building thoughts, and you’re always pulling up the thoughts you have built to guide and influence your next decision.

The best way to understand this is to think of a thought as a tree. The thought is the big concept: the whole tree with branches, leaves, and roots. The branches and leaves are how you express your memories as your conscious thinking, feeling, and choosing, which produce your behaviors and your communication (what you are saying and doing) and all of which manifest your lifestyle choices. The tree trunk represents the subconscious level and your perspective, which includes the physical and emotional signals you experience, such as that lurch of anticipation when you hear exciting news, that sense of happiness or joy that makes you bounce out of bed, or that nagging sense of depression or anxiety that something is wrong. The subconscious connects the nonconscious to the conscious, in the same way the trunk connects the roots to the leaves and branches. The roots represent the nonconscious roots of your memories. They are the origin of the informational, emotional, and physical memories and are the level that tells us what’s going on in our lives and why we do what we do—this is the level we have to tap into to make the changes needed in our lifestyles through mind management, as I discuss in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle.

In the same way that a planted seed forms roots, appears above ground, grows, and changes, so your thoughts grow and change over time. Once a thought is planted—the conversation you have, what you hear, what you read, and so on—its roots begin to grow. When “watered” with thinking, it grows into a little thought plant. If ignored, the thought tree dies. If, however, it gets lots of thinking energy, it will eventually get bigger and stronger. Whatever we think about the most will grow. So, at first it is a little plant, like a nagging worry or something at the back of your mind. Over time, if it’s watered with thinking, it becomes a “big tree” and can dominate and influence our behavior.

The exciting thing is that you are the director and designer of this process! You shape what you have built into your mind, and you can change what is not working or what is having a negative effect in your life. Toxic thought trees like trauma and bad habits can be built and broken down and rebuilt—toxic trees aren’t your destiny. This is self-regulated mind-management: your thinking, feeling, and choosing are shaping, pruning, and building. And the more self-regulated you are, the more effective this process is and the more peace and meaning you’ll find in life!

Indeed, it’s important to remember that although our thought-life is a stream of consciousness, with thousands of individual thoughts blending together, we can bring a level of order to our thinking by controlling what we allow into our mind and brain and what’s already in our mind and brain. We’re able to evaluate the individual frames of thought by self-regulating our stream of consciousness through mind management. We can harness the power of our thinking in tangible, sustainable ways!

To do this, I recommend doing a Neurocycle, the scientific mind-management process I have developed and researched over the past three decades and discuss in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, my app Neurocycle,  and in my latest clinical trials. These steps can help you learn how to reconceptualize your thinking, i.e. changing the way your thought tree and its memories look in the brain:

First, calm down your brain and body by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).

Next, GATHER awareness of your warning signals, such as tension in your shoulders, indigestion or feelings of anxiety.

Then, REFLECT on why you are having these feelings. Ask, answer and discuss with yourself.

After this step, WRITE down what you reflected on. This will help you organize your thinking.

Then, RECHECK. Look for triggers, thought patterns and “antidotes” (for example, how you would like to respond in the future and how you would like the situation to end).

Lastly, practice your ACTIVE REACH. Practice using the “antidote” you came up with in the recheck step to deal with your trigger. For example, this could be as simple as practicing not raising your voice or being more aware of your body language.

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