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Memories: How they’re created and how we can modify them to improve mental wellbeing

Memory is fundamental to our identities—it’s our very own, very personal compilation of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and how we’ve felt about our experiences over time.

Our memories are a key part of who we are. So it’s not surprising that memories are also crucial to taking care of our mental health. All of the stories or "narratives" we tell ourselves (and others) throughout our lives are based on our memories.

And these stories can dramatically influence our emotions. Not only when we reflect on our past in the present moment, but also when we think about and anticipate events that may (or may not) happen in the future.

Memories, true and false….

We tend to have a strong attachment to our memories and trust both our capacity to remember and our precision recalling events, facts and information.

But memory is tricky.

And unfortunately, despite what our instincts might suggest, research into memory and how it works has repeatedly demonstrated that it’s a lot less reliable than we think it is.

Memories are just bits of information patched together with varying degrees of accuracy.

And they can be misleading in many different ways. Sometimes we may attribute something we remember to the wrong source or even remember something that didn’t happen.

We’re also very suggestible, and inaccurate information from external sources may find its way into our memories when people make suggestions or ask misleading questions. And finally, our personal biases based on our own personal knowledge, beliefs and feelings influence our recollections.

One way scientists have studied the phenomenon of false memories is with lists of associated words (e.g., candy, sour, sugar, bitter, good, taste, tooth, etc.). In these experiments, test subjects listened to lists, and afterwards up to 80% of them confidently "remembered" hearing a related word that was not actually mentioned in the experiment (e.g., sweet).

Interestingly enough, both true and false memory recognition are linked to activity in the same regions of the brain.

Long story short, your brain barely notices the difference between a true and a false memory.

When we're recalling a memory—regardless of if it's actually true or false—we believe we're remembering what really took place. This concept is especially interesting when it comes to treating people who've been through trauma.

If false memories act like real ones, could it be possible to replace true-but-traumatic memories with more positive or neutral counterfeit versions?

Scientists are still working on this possibility as they dive deeper into how memories work on a cellular and molecular level.

A hand holds an old polaroid of children playing in front of a house, trying to match their memory with current reality.

@dslr_newb via Unsplash

So how are fearful and unpleasant memories made?

When we witness or experience something that causes us fear, our thalamus relays that information to the amygdala, which stamps the memory as emotionally significant and stores it for future reference.

This way, we’ll be more likely to avoid related threats (Monitor on Psychology, the American Psychological Association).

Is there a way to deconstruct or edit unpleasant memories?

To some degree, yes. Whenever we learn something new, different parts of the brain talk to each other about all the information we’re taking in (sights, sounds, smells, whatever we’re able to perceive). But every time we remember something, our memories are susceptible to revision as our brains add new information (Annual Review of Psychology, 2012).

Which means we can choose to recall a memory and while we’re at it, leverage some techniques to edit past experience (or at least our feelings about said experience). Here are a few to try:

1. Break negative thought cycles.

Leverage techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to stop replaying that memory on repeat. Techniques like keeping a Thought record (you may find it easier to get started with a mental wellbeing app) can help you replace unhelpful thoughts about something that happened in the past with more neutral thoughts.

For more information on this technique, see our post on the basics of CBT.

2. Reframe what happened.

Use positive psychology to change your perspective and feelings. Did you learn something from what happened? Did anything positive eventually result from tripping and falling in front of a crowd of your peers (such as learning that people were helpful and kind, and embarrassment isn’t fatal)?

Want to learn more about positive psychology? Read our blog post on helping teams build resilience with postive psychology for a deeper dive.

3. Be kinder to yourself.

Self-appreciation, self-awareness and self-confidence all have one major element in common—the self. You can’t reap the benefits of these qualities without taking the time to be kind to yourself. It can be as simple as changing your self-talk to be more understanding and less critical.

Changing your perspective about yourself helps change how you recall (and how you feel about ) past experiences as you’re less likely to be judgmental and blame yourself. If you need a hand with this, you may want to try out the Build your self-esteem and Boost your confidence programs in Foundations.

4. Practise mindfulness.

Give your mind the gift of time off from repetitive and unhelpful thoughts with mindfulness. Taking time daily to meditate and zero back in on the present moment will give you some much-needed space from any memories that may have been bothering you.

Plus, studies show mindfulness meditation can make a big difference in your mood and mental and physical wellbeing.

Do you want to change how you feel about some past experiences? What are some ways you deal with bad memories? Share your thoughts with us at foundations@koahealth.com.