What memories can you trust?
“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
I have a hard time letting go of things. But I prefer to frame it this way:
I like to hold on. Not in an unhealthy way, I’ve worked through that, but I love memories.
My closet is a good example of this.
I still have the outfit I wore to my first important job interview and the one I wore on my first date with my ex-husband.
Yeah, the relationship ended, but that was a really great day. It’s okay to remember those.
I love the art of remembering. Yes, art, that’s right. Because memories have more to do with unique you than the actual event in time.
Just because something resides in the past does not negate it, or make it bad. Memories allow us to revisit the good. Or whatever we want to.
Some philosophy says, “we only have today”
I call Bullshit.
Even in the All-Powerful Now we have the memories that can serve us today, remind us today, protect us today.
Memories aren’t perfect. That’s what I love about them
What memories can we trust?
How Do Memories Work?
In order for a memory to be created, an event must be first perceived by our senses and encoded, then consolidated by regions in the brain, and thirdly must be retrieved.
Events with a strong emotional impact, either positive or negative, seem to be more easily remembered than neutral events. Further, some research suggests that negative emotional events are more profoundly recalled than positive.
“At the neural systems level, the memory enhancement seems to occur because, once active, regions within the effect processing system ( the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex) modulate the processing of regions that facilitate the encoding of sensory detail ( regions of the fusiform gyrus) and the consolidation of memory ( the hippocampal formation.)”
These studies show that while emotional arousal significantly impacts memory, it causes people to remember the central event, but forget the peripheral details.
This means the details get fuzzy.
Can you relate?
This often happens in relationships where an aroused event such as an argument triggers the retrieval of a negative memory. This memory could be from last week, ten years prior, or from childhood. The specific detail which may or may not be relevant to the current event is less reliable, and so there is an experience of almost “ reliving” the past.
The central theme may be correct, but we fill in the details with imagination.
With our fears.
With our wants.
With our judgments.
and even cultural beliefs.
This leads to conflicts in resolving the central issue.
A Memory Is Not Perfect
Even when we retain memories of our past they never are exactly what we may have perceived them to be at the time.
They are our experiences.
Regardless of what we add or subtract to them, it is how we experienced them
How we physically felt the sting of an old teachers words meant to put us down not bring us up.
Or it’s our teenager saying I hate you for the first time.
It’s how we processed it and now, how we remember it.
According to studies conducted by Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Department of Psychology, Boston College; “We remember some pieces of an event but forget others, and the event details we recall often are shaped by our current mindset and molded by thoughts and experiences that have occurred between the original event and the moment of remembering.”
This explains why even though we aren’t always aware of our memories faults, most of us understand memory is not always 100% accurate.
For example, many arguments in marriages and relationships arise due to inconsistencies in how a past event is remembered. That is an experience all too familiar for most people and it is how our brains are wired.
It’s similar to having a hard time remembering where you were at a particular time, what you ate for dinner last night or why someone looks familiar even though you can’t quite place them.
In Kensingers’s studies she states, “However, many of us nevertheless share the intuition that there are some moments in our lives that have been indelibly preserved: perhaps a wedding day, or the day a baby was brought home from the hospital. “
William James wrote that “some events are so emotional as to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues” (James, 1890/1998), capturing this intuition that although memory is not always perfect, sometimes a memory can accurately preserve a moment in time.
And we have all experienced a moment we wished could last a lifetime.
Is A Memory Ever Picture Perfect?
A “flashbulb memory,” a phrase coined by Brown and Kulik (1977), is when an unexpected event occurs. They theorize that a special memory mechanism takes over, causing the moment to be recorded with picture-perfect accuracy. When they asked people, fourteen years after the assassination of J.F.K., to describe details of exactly where they were when they heard the news, how they heard the news, and what they were doing when they heard it, everyone remembered the details of these memories with the utmost confidence.
“Though these memory reports could not be checked for accuracy, people’s beliefs that the information was retained vividly and accurately gave rise to the proposal that emotional memories may differ from non-emotional ones in terms of the details retained. Many studies have replicated Brown and Kulik’s (1977) original finding. People vividly recall natural disasters (Bahrick, Parker, Fivush, & Levett, 1998) or injuries that they experienced (Peterson & Bell.)”
But, ultimately these studies show us that emotional memories may not be able to be remembered with perfect accuracy because people’s accounts of these details change over time.
Research has provided evidence for memory-enhancing properties of emotional arousal.
- When an event is emotionally arousing, it is more likely to be remembered.
- But if we examine not only whether an event is remembered, but also what types of details are remembered then the studies tell us emotional arousal does not enhance memory across-the-board and for all types of event details.
- It shows that emotional arousal appears to be associated with memory-narrowing effects.
The research all share the central idea that some elements of an emotional experience are remembered well because of their arousing nature, while other elements may receive no evocative benefit and fact could be more likely to be forgotten.
Tune In To Your Internal Perceptions
One way to process and understand this is interoception, meaning focusing on the body instead of the mind and the sensing of internal bodily changes.
Our body is finely tuned to take in accurate data from the current situation through heart and brain wave coherence and other subtle data so you can best asses and decide.
How does my body feel?
What is it telling me?
Pay attention to temperature, heart rate, breathing, and your “gut feelings”.
This combination of using our memory, which serves to educate and protect us, along with our bodies interoceptive ability – the antennae for the seen and unseen world around us, can serve to make intelligent and appropriate decisions when in a state of negative emotional arousal.
Our bodies are wise and full of love.
- Buchanan TW. Retrieval of emotional memories. Psychonomic Bulletin. 2007;133:761–779. [PubMed]
- Dolcos F, LaBar KS, Cabeza R. Interaction between the amygdala and the medial temporal lobe memory system predicts better memory for emotional events. Neuron. 2004b;42:855–863. [PubMed]
- Anderson AK, Yamaguchi Y, Grabski W, Lacka D. Emotional memories are not all created equal: evidence for selective memory enhancement. Learning and Memory. 2006;13:711–718. [PubMed]