The Creation and Re-Creation of Memory

What sets humans apart from other species is our cognitive abilities–our abilities to think, to forgive, to make decisions, to remember. Memory, within itself, like ideas and emotions, is abstract–something intangible, something we cannot see, and so we try to find ways to capture memory, and how memory is constructed (the Modernists conduct ‘steam of consciousness’ writing to depict how the brain strings associations together, in social media, we attempt to cement memories in pictures and status updates, for dream analysis, we encourage people to keep journals in order to recall their dreaming states).

As cognitive research progresses, more and more studies are finding that our memories are malleable, changeable, conglomerations of multiple experiences, and that perhaps our memories are not quite as reliable or as trustworthy as we think. Of course, this could present huge implications in things, such as eye witness testimony–in the famous Elizabeth Loftus studies, she concludes that the types of word choice can change how a memory is retrieved–which could certainly present problems in interrogations and trials –the language an interrogator or attorney uses could significantly impact the testimony a witness gives, and could feasibly instigate a false confession.

Gregory David Roberts says, “Nothing exists as we see it. Nothing we see is really there, as we think we are seeing it. Our eyes are liars. Everything that seems real, is merely part of the illusion”. For therapists and counselors, the ability for the memory to revise itself could prevent challenges for clients whose fabrications make their way into their realities (I’m thinking particularly of those who suffer from disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia, narcissism, anxiety–where ruminating on and believing the fabrication of a story so many times could eventually feel like reality). As a therapist, I think the challenge becomes–do you treat the client for the fabricated memory that has become their reality, or do you treat them to reverse the memory to live in reality? (Ok–so in Sherlock Season 4, when Sherlock finds out Red Beard was not a dog, but actually a friend–prior to this discovery–would you treat Sherlock’s memory of the dog–the memory that was fabricated and not reality, but the one exists as Sherlock’s reality, or would you try to bring Sherlock to reality, and reframe the memory so that the memory is the truth?)

But, I also think the ability for the memory to recreate itself can have some exciting implications for our abilities to engage with and understand the world. It is always really fascinating to me which memories make it into my cognitive storage, and which memories do not. While some very fantastic memories have made it into that storage, it seems that the most vivid and prevalent memories are those which incurred some kind of negative emotion–rejection, insecurity, disappointment, and most often, fear–and it is amazing to me how one small situation could create a memory that lingers forever.

For example, the memory of boredom, to me, incites feelings of rejection, insufficiency, unworthiness. My family never really went on family vacations, so when summer rolled around, and all my friends were out on vacation, my siblings and I sat at home, and that feeling of boredom was a result of feeling like no one cared enough about us to take us on vacation as well, and it’s interesting to me that, even in my adult life, that memory of boredom incites a very similar unwanted and uncared for feeling.

These memory formations carry into our relationships with others. I think about a friend that I have whose husband left her for a slew of other women. We were watching a T.V. show the other day in which a character got a text message from someone other than his wife, which triggered her memory of betrayal, and made her start questioning her current relationship (even though this new guy is totally reliable and trustworthy–the emotional part overruled the logical part because the associations with the memory were so strong).

Or, I think about a time that I once got my legs stuck in lotus pose in yoga, and that I panicked that my ankle was going to turn and break, and now I just skip that pose altogether. Or the time I got hit in the head with a softball–and now every time I run to first base, I flinch a little, expecting to be pelted again. Or, the time my dance shoes fell off my foot, and I spent the reminder of the performance with dangling pointe shoes, so every performance after that, I spent at least 30 minutes, hairspring, rosining, gluing my shoe to my tight so that it would not fall off. For some reason, even though each of these were one instance out of probably a hundred times that I’ve done lotus pose, ran to first base, put on my dance shoe, but my memory seems to ruminate and stick to the ones that carried some kind of fear with it.

What I think is exciting about memory formation, however, is that we can re-create these memories to pull away some of the feelings of rejection, of insecurity, of disappointment, of fear–and re-train ourselves to experience these situations in a more enjoyable way (this is why I agree with Freud, that our default is to be pleasure seeking, and competitive–because it takes work to move away from these states). Of course, I think there are memories that we may never get away from. Boredom may always bring up feelings of unwantedness, a text message may always bring up fears of secrecy, and I may always be skeptical to do lotus pose, but through recreating memories–and retraining myself that the conclusion could be different for those experiences, the feelings and emotions may become a little more diluted, a little less upsetting, a little more revealing of how the metaphysical memory is constructed.

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