Are First Impressions Actually Lasting Impressions?
On remembering first experiences and first encounters
First impressions — Moments that can potentially define our entire perception of something, somewhere, or someone for the rest of our lives. First impressions are always a tricky thing because they can either make or break an entire experience for us.
Just try to think back to your first encounter with your best friend. Or your significant other. Or what your first day of college was like. Or your first job.
Do you remember the conversation that you had? Do you remember walking through the door for the first time? Do you remember if you were nervous or hopeful?
The funny part about memory is that it’s completely and wholly subjective to that of our own minds. We selectively remember the version that happened to us, not necessarily the version from anyone else involved. And regardless of the facts, the version that we hold in our minds is the one that will always remain true.
“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” — Spike Jonze, Her
In an article published by MIT News, titled “How we recall the past”, author Anne Trafton writes about a new brain circuit that is dedicated to recalling memories. In the article, she opens with the following,
“When we have a new experience, the memory of that event is stored in a neural circuit that connects several parts of the hippocampus and other brain structures. Each cluster of neurons may store different aspects of the memory, such as the location where the event occurred or the emotions associated with it.”
Trafton goes on by writing about a recent study by MIT neuroscientists which uncovered that, “recalling a memory requires a ‘detour’ circuit that branches off from the original memory circuit”. With this, she later explains that old memories can essentially be edited by our brain — Meaning that a past memory can be re-written.
So the question is, how much should we trust ourselves when it comes to recalling memories from the past? — Memories from our first encounters with a certain person, place, or thing.
Well, that all depends on what we took away from a specific memory — fear, trauma, happiness — and whether or not that first encounter discouraged us from ever crossing paths with that person, place, or thing again.
If yo‘ve taken a psychology class, one of the main things that you likely learned about were the different functions of the brain, such as the hippocampus and the amygdala.
If you’re not familiar with either of these, the hippocampus is associated primarily with memory whereas the amygdala is primarily associated with emotional processes, such as a fear and stress. The two work together to process recollection.
What does this have to do with first impressions?
Well, everything. That is, if the memory is impactful enough. Major life events such as graduating college, getting married, or having your first child are ones that will typically leave a mark on us. Ones that we don’t tend to forget. But, what if it’s something that’s seemingly insignificant?
The thing is, it’s really only insignificant in that exact moment. What matters is whether or not it had any lasting effect on us.
We can never really tell how first impressions or first encounters will play out — We may be anxious or excited or scared leading up to it something it’s a premeditated event. And if not, then it’s just a normal day where we may have just been caught completely off guard.
First impressions or first encounters are highly dependent on the severity of the experience. Take for example, getting bit by a dog in your first encounter with one. Or trying a new kind of food for the first time, then getting food poisoning because of it.
We remember these types of experiences because they tampered with our initial association of that particular thing. This could then affect our likelihood of ever trying it again. Logically, we don’t want to potentially put ourselves in harm’s way if we experienced discomfort the last time we tried it.
So, what about positive first encounters? Surely, we remember those as distinctly as negative ones?
Of course we do. But, regardless of whether the event was a positive or negative first encounter, the memory is subject to being edited by our brain, as Traft writes in her article about the MIT study.
If the truth is that memories, which are inclusive of first impressions and first encounters, can in fact be changed by our own minds, then are first impressions really last impressions? And if so, which first impressions are the ones that really stick?
The brain is a complex organ, capable of storing one million megabytes of memory. At the same time, our brain is also designed to protect us; To save us from system overload — If it weren’t, we’d live with the agony of reliving horrific and tragic events that we’ve experienced day-in and day-out.
The first impressions and first encounters that are truly the lasting ones are the ones that we’re able to call on to remember. The ones that made us feel something which resonated and lingered within us.
What we remember is the way that we felt, not the memory itself. That’s the thing that really lasts.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” — Maya Angelou