Finding answers in your past can lead you into a theoretical quagmire, especially when there is modern ‘brain research’ that now states that memories shift and warp over time.
During times of distress, it’s natural to find ourselves searching for answers – “why am I feeling anxious all the time?” – “why am I struggling to get going, to be motivated?” – “why is it that I get angry so often?”.
At times like these we can then launch into the seemingly never-ending mental exercise of trying to find the source of the concern, how it all started or who triggered this within me. Theoretical as the answer may be, we just want an answer so we can move on.
But there is an issue here, and that is that we have particularly poor resources to recall accurate memories, for instance; what colour shoes did you wear 21 days ago? What did you eat for breakfast two weeks ago last Thursday?
Now, yes, these can be considered trivial situations and chances are you don’t remember all the details as quite possibly you’ll never need this peripheral information again.
Unless, of course, someone shouted “THERE’S GLASS IN YOUR FOOD”, as you crunch down on the ‘semi’-tasty bite of a pain au chocolate (yes, I did actually research ‘foods with the word pain’ for that wildly tenuous connection) – I’m pretty sure you’d remember THAT scenario.
The pain, the panic, the rush to the hospital.
This is because this went from an ordinary everyday peripheral memory into an episodic memory – one that will have you checking pretty much every mouthful of food in the near future.
But even these more significant memories can distort in time, and they may even be ‘padded out’ in order to hold on to the negative emotion as a reminder to eyeball each mouthful of food you chow down in the next sitting.
So when searching for answers to our problems, an important question could be, to what degree are the memories we record, accurate?
“We know about 50% of the details of a memory can change in a year, even though most people are convinced they are 100% right” – Elizabeth Phelps.
Neuroscientist / Memory, Learning and Emotion, discussing memories of 9/11.
And this is an important concern – whilst we think we are referring to solid past memories, we may well be casting our minds back to skewed recordings of events, and subsequently, basing future behaviours on potentially shoddy information.
Story, place and emotion are key features to a lasting core memory, but even these features can be hijacked by filling in the surrounding memories to suit a story.
“We can’t remember every single detail of every experience and so we use pre-existing knowledge such as semantic memory (idea’s and concepts not drawn from personal experience), facts that we have, or our pre-existing biases and beliefs, to fill in those gaps.” – Donna Rose Addis.
Neuroscientist / Perception, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience.
Surprisingly, our most significant memories are known to deteriorate at the same rate as everyday memories, even though we feel we are more confident in the details of those core, emotional ones.
Not only that, our memory system can be so unreliable it can become contaminated through false belief’s and “we can boost the confidence in a false memory by confirming it, or by reporting it multiple times”, states Phelps.
How important it is then that we choose each thought and belief with care, for when you hear yourself uttering all that disparaging, negative self-chat such as “I can’t do this”, or “this is not what I do” etc etc, you can now imagine the detrimental effect going forwards with these drummed in, repeated self-deprecating confirmations.
They might not be right, but you certainly are trying to make them right, as best you can.
Now take that brain in distress desperately seeking reasons, and you can see how tricky it is when looking into your past for answers, drawing from memories that may or may not be distorted throughout time.
Ok, so before you give up all hope at this somewhat depressing article I’ve managed to construct that may have you slightly discombobulated, let me drop in a topical Christmas pantomime quote…
“It’s behind you!”.
(Your past, that is).
And the joyous carol singing tinsel hanging thigh slapping happier, ‘progressive’ answer that I’ve been painstakingly working towards is (drum roll please)…
Start to look forward.
Many ‘NOWists’ will gleefully tell you that the past is but a memory, the future a myth, but everything around you now is real.
And when you think it through, we neither need to concern ourselves with what has been or what will be to enjoy ‘what is’, in the here and now.
I can hear people arguing demonstratively already – ‘but you can’t ignore your feelings from the past for they hold the answers to your future…’, and yes, I agree (partially), but as Robert Sapolsky, arguably one of the greatest living neurologists states, “‘thinking differently about something emotional’ differs from simply ‘suppressing the expression of the emotions’”.
This is not ignoring the past and it’s emotional memories, this is understanding and trusting that lessons were learnt at the time, that we will remember anything that we need to in order to help us get through today without consciously having to try to remember it, and that now is the opportunity to start making important changes by focusing your effort in thoughts and actions on tomorrow, in order to begin creating a brighter future.
If at this time you are finding things difficult, emotional, and are struggling to let go of the past and move forward, you can begin to create change by thinking differently, and acting accordingly.
As renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom once wrote, “at some point, it would be wise to stop wishing for a better past”.