From the age of 9 to 29, I kept a diary every year. These diaries were stored in my parents’ loft for many years until being handed over to me recently and when I read them (especially the teenage years), I discovered something remarkable. The majority of my memories are flawed and inaccurate. Parts of my childhood that I’d idolised weren’t so perfect, and aspects I’d demonised weren’t so awful. Events happened much later or earlier than I thought, and how I spent my time as a teenager wasn’t always indoors and alone.
In her book ‘Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting’, neuroscientist Lisa Genova very much normalises these phenomena of flawed memory. She explains that we tend to save autobiographical memories that fit with our sense of identity, biases and associations. So, for example, if we’ve created an identity of being intelligent, we’re more likely to recall occasions in which we demonstrated this trait and, therefore, reinforce who we believe ourselves to be.
The book goes on to explain that memories are also subject to editing. Not only will we create memories based on certain aspects of events, but when we consolidate those memories and, later, retell them to others or ruminate over them in our minds, we will change the details. The memories can be added to or amended based on our imaginations, current emotional states, something we’ve read or heard, a dream, someone else’s memory or even mere suggestion. And the most powerful influence on our memories is the words we use to describe them.
In essence, every time we remember something, we restructure the story.
So, how can this information help our mental health?
- Changing beliefs: Awareness that our memories are most likely not a factual account of something that happened in our lives may offer a level of comfort. Our beliefs about ourselves have reshaped the memories into something which feels in alignment with our identity. So, shifting our beliefs can also alter the way we remember and interpret past events. This, in turn, will help us feel differently about ourselves, our history and, hopefully, not feel such a prisoner or victim of events.
- Paying attention: If memories are formed by what we notice and pay attention to, we can consciously start to build up more supportive and joyful memories by paying more attention to the parts of our lives which we enjoy and value.
- Expand our vocabulary: We can start to change the language we use to talk about and remember our memories. Newspaper editors and journalists understand the power of language when they write headlines designed to provoke emotional states. By using dramatic adjectives like tragic, unthinkable, critical, worst, catastrophe and terror, they grab our attention and leave us feeling anxious, scared or angry. Finding gentler ways to describe your memories will help ease any discomfort, fear or shame. For example, changing words such as crisis to puzzle or difficult situation shifts the emotional tone*
Our memories don’t necessarily define us in the way we think they do. They are a narrative we have created over many years based on fragmented elements of events, situations, people and activities we have experienced. As with any narrative, we can change it to help us create a better present and future.
*Trauma or PTSD memories are formed differently in the brain to our usual memories, and seeking support from a professional therapist is recommended to process these in a safe and supportive environment.
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