Have you ever experienced someone else steadfastly believing that your memory was theirs? Or, have you been told that a traumatizing childhood memory wasn’t as catastrophic as you remember?
Most of us think that memory works as a second-by-second recreation of events. Instead, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed based on how the memory was last remembered and what new changes have happened in the brain since then. In a sense, memory is not a recalled moment in time, but a thought based on a continuum of context.
So, if we have grown more accepting of a negative memory, it might not trigger us as much. However, if we have allowed the negative emotions attached that memory to fester and grow stronger, we may remember a past event in a more dramatic fashion than it actually was.
Research out of McGill University elegantly illustrates this new concept of memory. In 2002, a woman named Rita Magil was in a car accident that left her with two broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Long after her bones had healed, she would find herself doing a mundane task and suddenly the accident would come flooding back to her — as realistically as if it were happening all over again.
Magil was so desperate to release her “episodes of terror” that she sought out experimental treatment from McGill psychologist Alain Brunet. He gave her a drug that reduced the activity in her amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions). Next, Brunet played her a taped recreation of her car accident. Since the drug blocked the release of adrenaline, Magil was prevented from tensing up and getting anxious as the memory came flooding back. The experience allowed her to later remember her accident from a distance, leaving the terror behind.
Brunet’s experiment demonstrates that we alter our memories just by remembering them in a new context. As Northwestern University researcher Donna Bridge says, “Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”
Instead of feeling dismay that our brain does not remember events exactly, we can find this mental flexibility quite liberating! Not that people can go around remembering things that are untrue, but since the brain skews our memories anyway, we can just as easily “remember” it in a more positive, useful direction.
By using some simple reframing techniques, (instead of taking a drug like Magil) we can have more choice of how we interpret an event’s “facts” and how we think and feel about the event. By taking ownership of skewed memories we can change our perceptions of them to something healthy and constructive.
This week, why not make a commitment to adjust one negative memory you have been harboring? It does not matter if it is a small or a large memory. Experiment with one or more of the following tactics to override that memory and reprogram your thinking:
• The next time you are in a really good mood, think about the negative event. Doing this over and over and help make the memory seem less important and less influential over your life.
• Openly discuss the negative memory with a supportive friend. Outside perspectives are excellent at modifying and reframing a memory.
• Think about the negative memory in the most ridiculous scenarios. Finding humor in your memory can help change its meaning and your perception.
• Find an environment that nurtures you and helps you to feel loved and supported, such as a forest or the beach. Giving yourself a comfortable space to reflect on the event can help bring closure and perspective.
• Let your creative side transmute the negative memory. Creating a piece of art, writing a song, or short story about it can allow your mind to release and reinterpret the events of the past.
“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” — Arthur M. Schlesinger