Msnowe's Blog

The Persistance of [bad] Memory

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on September 6, 2007

MLK Jr., JFK, Princess Diana, 9/11, London Bombings, Madrid Bombings, etc. You reference these people or events, and easily many different images come to mind. Somehow a movie screen clicks to life with dancing images projected in the mind. Maybe it’s where you were, what you said, what someone else said, the actual images from the news stories, or something else you associate with a “fear-inducing,” or negative emotionally charged event. More often than not, negative emotional memories seem to be burned in our heads, more so than the positive. And it’s true what our parents said so long ago, for every compliment you remember, you also remember four insults.

Perhaps you disagree, and claim that you can remember the positively emoted memories of your past, and perhaps you are right. But how clear are your good memories to those of your bad? Are the good memories just a general picture, and the bad more crisp and focused on certain details? Studies show that negative memories, especially those surrounded in fear or anxiety, are remembered with the greatest accuracy, and a lower gradient of distortion over time in comparison to happy ones.

Think of a happy event. The happiness of the event may be overwhelming, but if you then take those memories, and discuss them with someone else who shared your happiness on that date, you will inevitably find discrepancies. Memoirists, biographers, and the general public all suffer from a sort of happiness aphasia. If we all remembered everything that happened to us, if we didn’t have the ability to forget, we’d all go crazy, surely. But it seems a bit depressing that what we tend to keep in our minds the most vividly are the negatives.

Negatives can serve some purpose, however. If we harness the ability to remember those events that caused us the most damage, we will be more careful in the future. And the less events in our lives that cause fear and pain, the more we avoid them, the more room our memory sensors with have for those endorphin-spurred happiness neurons. It is when we do not recognize the circuitry of our brains that problems can occur. Take any major climatic event in the past few years. If we are constantly bombarded with images and reminders, however subtle, the memory sensors in our brain will shift into recall overdrive. While these sensors are for survival, to steer us away from dangerous repetition, what happens when not only our memory, but the outside world (including the media and the government) enhance our memory and our drive to prevent the fearful past from recurring? You probably know where this is going – and that would be to the land of overcompensation. The problem is, when we emphasize these huge, overarching fears, not only to we forget to enjoy life because of our focus on these extreme negatives, we also loose our senses of imagination, awe, and the ability to observe the little things. And the little things are where these large, fearsome memories initially grow from. When government officials came back with their findings on the 9/11 plot, they determined that intelligence agencies “lacked imagination.” While it is intensely important to protect ourselves, we cannot dwell, because we can be sure that anyone looking to cause fear and pain in the future will not be dwelling, but innovating.

We cannot let our memories get the best of us. By understanding how our brains are wired, we are given the power to recognize why we see the images the way we do, and evaluate them as we should – and not let others try to capitalize on our sense of memory and it’s interconnected emotions. J. M. Barrie had it right – it is hard to think of happy memories, but once we do, our imaginations, and future promise, will soar.