The Lies Of The Past - A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.Reminisce. We all do it. In remembering that relaxing vacation to beach, the exhilaration of a passionate, tingly romance, or the wonder of being a new parent, memories become can become romanticized and better than the actual experiences. Conversely, you can remember a fight with friend, the end of a relationship, or an impossible project at work which in hindsight, can become more traumatic than it actually was.

Like the fish tale, each recollection packs a little more punch and grows more charged each time with the process of remembering it.

In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes that “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He says memories are imperfect copies of what actually happened and compares them to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph.  …[W]e have to misremember something to remember it.”

At the most basic level, a memory is made up of the slight shifts in certain synapses within a specific sequence which incorporate the various elements that make up that memory. Every time you recall it, your brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering it through who you are, what you know, and your mindset at the time of remembering. Hence, memory is an active and ongoing process, and according to Lehrer, “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.”

The New Science Of Memory

Traditionally, science has viewed memories similar to unchanging words on the pages of a book stored safely on a shelf somewhere accumulating dust.  Lehrer tells of experiments done at NYU in 2000 which prove this to be false and which demonstrate that the act of remembering actually changes the brain.

In the experiment, rats were conditioned to associate a shock with a noise. The experimenters let this memory solidify for 45 days until the rats cowered in fear just upon hearing the noise with no accompanying shock. Next, the rats were exposed to the sound, but were injected with a protein inhibitor that interrupted the process of recalling the memory of the shock. If the memory was filed away in some protected, long term storage, when the chemical wore off, the rats should have still been able to remember the shock associated with the noise. However, this didn’t happen. After the rats were blocked from remembering the shock, the original memory didn’t reappear and the rats were no longer fearful of the noise.

This same methodology is being researched as a possible treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.

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  1. Ande Waggener Reply

    This is really powerful information, Debbie! When we can understand that we create our memories (what psychologists call “your story”), we can choose to tweak those memories into more useful ones, and the amazing thing is that by changing how we see the past, the present responds and matches up to it!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      You are so right, Ande. While there is most always a grain of truth to our story, a large part of it is made up of our beliefs and interpretations. We can actually change our histories just by changing our thoughts about it. In this way we can heal ourselves and position ourselves much better for the present and future. Worked wonders for me!

      I see that I missed your most recent post. How’d I do dat? I thought you had been awfully quiet!

  2. As always, I enjoy the way you choose and write about mental health topics, Debbie.

    I never could have retained my sanity without the ability to rewrite my own story. This is what therapists mean when they say “perception is reality”. They’re talking about this inability we have, and must have, to experience reality objectively. For one thing, there’s too much sensory data to process properly, so we train ourselves to edit things out to make the remainder manageable. For another, we can only handle so much emotional stress without damage. Memory re-writes are a protection against pain overload.

    I had not liked my experiences at school, but I was considering going to college. I unconsciously made myself a whole series of dreams in preparation, as a way of reorienting myself through manufactured memory. In each dream I attended classes (at different ages) in a place called Wright School, where I did well and had good friendships. When I went to college a couple of months later, I had a super time because by then I had graduated from the RIGHT SCHOOL.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Mikey, thanks so much. This stuff is boring to some. I am sure of that. However, I find it fascinating. I guess I am just a happy geek!

      Sounds like you just inherently knew how to alter your thoughts to make them work for you instead of against you. That is the whole point, isn’t it? Only took me about 45 years to figure that out. It is so powerful.

      I used my imagination and thoughts unconsciously before to construct this illusory world in which I existed. It was nice until the bubble burst. Now, I use my thoughts consciously choose my perceptions of my memories and of events in the present. Changes everything…for the better.

  3. Hi Debbie,

    Wanted to respond more in detail since it’s a subject that fascinates me as well, but just found this quote from Luis Bunuel on ‘The Frailest Thing’ blog:

    “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”


    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks, Tim, I love it. I never really thought about it before, but, I guess, my brain injury forced me to realize that my memory and thoughts are what basically comprised the foundation of my life and how I defined myself. Therefore, subsequently, I could consciously choose, change and control it. I am not sure that I agree with the “without it we are nothing,” but it sure does comprise a large part of who we are.

  4. Debbie,

    Is that why we always speak of the “good old days?” We only remember the good stuff just like a woman doesn’t remember the pain of child birth but remembers the joy of bringing in an new life into the world. You challenging so many long-standing beliefs. Maybe those are jost mis-rememberings as well. Thanks and another great job.


    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I wonder if we recognized the “good ole days” as being so good when we were in them? I know that I did not. They sure get better over time, huh?:) I think with child birth, as with anything really, the feeling and most important part of the memory is whatever we focus on.

  5. Stephen Gemmell Reply

    Hi Debbie. Absolutely fascinating. Thought you didn’t know anything about NLP? Changing Personal History is a key technique for helping pople who are ‘haunted’ by a past event. And as you now know, our metaprogram selects our perceptual filters and what gets through. So that means that if it has changed since the time of the memory, you will perceive the event differently. Fascinating. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      So, I do know about NLP! So much of this stuff has formal names and is included in defined philosophies. I tend to learn a lot about whatever interests me and piece together a philosophy that works for me….The Toa of Debbie. It does make me want to do some more reading and learning of NLP! Or I can just follow your blog and let you educate me…huh?

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, J. D. Since it is an ongoing process, we might as well change it for our good, huh?!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Steve, I agree totally! Yes, yes, yes. When someone truly understands this, they can take control over their life and create a glorious future in each moment of the now.

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