What if I told you that the stories you tell yourself of your past are not cast in stone and that you had the power to rewrite your story?
Most of us imagine that our memory works like files in a file cabinet. Where an event or skill is written down on paper and each time we open that file we read the same words. Our modern theories of how memory works show changes to memory over time. There is significant ongoing research into how our brains create and retrieve memories and how those memories decay over time.
Reconstructive Model of Memory
One of the models of how our memory works emerged in the 1960s and is known as the reconstructive model. “The reconstructive model (Braine, 1965; Pollio & Foote, 1971) posits that memories are not stored in LTM [long term memory] as intact units of experience (e.g., like a video recording), but rather as individual details with varying degrees of association to each other. In addition to these loosely connected details, we also store a script of the experience—a kind of story we use to narrate the memory. Together, they form the building blocks of memory (the details) and the assembly manual (the script). The likelihood of reliably recalling experienced events would then depend upon the completeness of the script and the degree to which the details “stick together” (or are recalled at all)
When an event is recalled, we essentially pull up components (i.e., the script and the details) to report the memory. There may be a bidirectional flow of influence between the nature of the script and the nature of the recalled details. If we have an especially vivid script of the events we believe happened, we may be more likely to omit details that don’t seem highly related, and we may unwittingly alter others in a way that better fits with the script. If the script of the events is incorrect, consider how this might change the details that are recalled. Thus, “details” may not be completely stable or intransigent, given that our own scripts may be wrong or inadequate. “1
How this affects our memories
This means every time we access a memory or telling the story of that memory, we unknowingly rewrite our story. We also know that our brain is more likely to hold onto our negative memories, presumably as an evolutionary adaptation. Yet every time a negative memories overtakes us, we assume it is accurate and let its awful feelings overtake us. This helps to reinforce this memory and add to the feelings of despair and disappointment we feel around it.
How we can make conscious change
When the memory of that stupid thing you said or the way you hurt a friend arrives, pause and breathe. There are two ways you can help to rewrite or remove this memory. You look differently at the story your brain is telling you and change it, even slightly, to the positive. Overtime this will begin to change the feel of the story. You can also work on intentionally forgetting the memory by eliminating the context (smell, location, etc) that triggers it.
If you are dealing with more than the foot in your mouth, adolescent memories and instead something deeper, more persistent, of even PTSD enlisting the help of a psychologist to implement these techniques will be very important.
Be proud of your story
Remember we aren’t our memories and we have the power to rewrite the story we tell ourselves each time we think of who we are, were and are going to be. Take control of your story and write one you are proud to tell the world.
1 Fanetti Matthew, Fondren-Happel Rachel, O’Donohue William T. Handbook of Child and Adolescent Sexuality. Academic Press. 2013.