Self-biography exercise

Self-biography exercise

Two acquaintances meet after years. The other one can’t remember their last meeting while the other one cheerfully says: “Oh yes, it was the Summer of 2005, we met in that cafe in London, on a Friday afternoon as I was returning home from work.  Which one reminds you of yourself?

In the very first post I told about how I first got excited about mind mapping after starting to write down everything I could remember that had happened to me. This article is about that same thing in the form of a self-biography exercise that you can follow, along with discussion on why it makes sense to document your past. Completing this might not instantly give you a total recall of your whole life. Still, you’ll take a big step in that direction by creating a better index for your memories. That in turn helps you create a better understanding of your life as a continuum from a baby to the present day.


As you probably know, once you put something in your brain it can stay there forever. There are two main reasons for not remembering things. The first one is that those things were not stored well in the memory in the first place. That we can’t do anything about afterwards. You may want to learn to memorize things better for the next time. The second reason for bad recall is that you’re unable to find the memory in the midst of all the things that have been piling up in your mind during all the years. It’s sometimes like trying to find the famous needle in the haystack when you don’t even know where the haystack is.

The brain works through associations, but these don’t always have to be that logical. In fact, any two things can get associated. Just as Pavlov’s dogs started associating the bell to food, your memories are connected to each other in many different ways. You may not always remember things directly, but you can learn to search them through those associations.

Age, year, life phases, locations, people

When you search the web using a search engine, probably the most important skill is coming up with good keywords. Searching your own memory is not all that different. The way I look at it, is that anything you concentrate on, is a keyword, be it an image, a sound or a smell, out in the world or inside your mind. Any thought that follows by association, is a search result.

Write down numbers from 0 to whatever your age is. Under each number write one or two things you remember or know happening when you were that age. It probably helps to add the year next to the age, like 1979 – 1. You might think there is not much difference, but the brain has different associations stored for the age numbers and year numbers. If I think of age 18, one of the things that pop up is me getting my driving license. If, on the other hand I think of the year 1997 I think of high school exams. I probably filled a lot of exam papers, writing that year number in them. You can do a quick search for what happened during those years in the world. Reading old news brings back yet another set of different memories. If going through each and every year feels too much, think of major life phases instead, or just split the time in five or ten year slices instead.

One way that memories tend to be strongly associated is through location. Think about the places where you have lived, the specific buildings you’ve lived in or visited. Imagine being there again. What do you see? What are you doing physically? Are there other people? Listen. What do you hear? With a little practice, if you slow yourself down a bit and take your time, you can learn to move around in the places in your memories.

“I don’t remember” often translates to: “I can’t find the memory in five seconds.” It’s like googling the web and giving up if the first result page doesn’t have the answer.

You might surprise yourself of how much you actually remember if you just stop and think about it. “I don’t remember” often translates to: “I can’t find the memory in five seconds.” It’s like googling the web and giving up if the first result page doesn’t have the answer.

For now, just concentrate on listing as many different things as you can, without getting too much concerned with the details. After you’ve filled the mind map you’ll have a nice overview of your whole life. Not to mention stories to share with your friends the next time you spend an evening together.

Are the memories true

Without going too deep into the exact meaning of truth, I’d suggest you always take your memories with a grain of salt. Even if you are an autistic memory enigma, your memories won’t be perfect images of the past. That’s just not how the brain works, apparently. It’s not a video camera, or a sound recorder. The memories are typically distorted in one way or another.

A good example of distortion is the distinction between associated and dissociated memories. Sometimes when you think of yourself in the past, an image will come to mind where you see yourself doing something, like you were watching yourself from the outside. This sort of dissociated memories are useful in many ways. They help to see the bigger picture and approach things analytically. They typically take much of the associated feelings away from the thoughts, too. There is just no way they can be exact memories of what you’ve seen or heard or done. Most of us hardly ever actually see ourselves in reality. Well, unless we are looking at a mirror or seeing ourselves on a video.

The unreliability of our memories is a reason to document the past. Do mind mapping, write a personal journal, take photos and document things in other ways. You’ll get access to at least some relatively undistorted information about your history.


It’s useful to be able to make a clear distinction between the past, the present and the future: your personal history, the current reality and your plans and predictions. By creating a separate map, or maps, for your biography we have cleared the path for thinking about the future. You can come back to these maps anytime you feel like contemplating about your past. You can even make it a regular thing. Annual, monthly, weekly or even daily recaps are not really that hard to do. What if you would write down just one thing every single day? How many more good memories would you remember after a few weeks? How about after a month or a year? Too lazy to keep a diary? A few keywords a day will take you a long way.


Antti Halla

M.Sc. in Computer Science, software engineer, personal coach, entrepreneur, writer. “Mind maps are the most important personal tool I use daily. And I’ve been doing so for over ten years now. I use them as a notebook, an idea collection, a personal planner and a project management system. The maps help me study, write, solve problems and think about anything in general. Basically, my whole life is in mind maps.”
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