Psychology: Memory

How Things Get Remembered
Long-Term Memory System
Memory Organization
Encoding and LTM
Remembering and Forgetting

Searching for Memory
    > Emotional Memory
    > Source Amnesia
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"... when the past vanishes as a result of amnesia and dementia, so does much of the person. Appreciating the present and anticipating the future hinge on an ability to communicate with the past. When we lose the capacity to travel in time, we are cut loose from much of what anchors our sense of who we are and where we are headed." - Daniel L. Schacter, "Searching for memory: the brain, the mind, and the past", (New York, 1996).

Emotional Memory:

For many people, childhood memories are special. We were innocent and care-free. The world revolved around us, and we were at the center. We long to go back to feel the unconditional love from our parents and the trust that we were able to give back to them. It is the time to be treasured and to carry us through the ups and downs in our adult lives. (At least, that's the way about 50's movies, right?)

OK, but what if your childhood (or your past) is something you see as a cockroach or other unpleasant critters? What if it is filled with pain and hurt? What if you were abused, raped, injured badly, neglected, was sick, in battle fields, in the war, in tragic accidents, or in disastrous events? Do you really want to remember the traumatic events in your childhood (or in your past)? Sure, you don't want to. It hurts so much to remember. You just can't face it.

The natural course of action then is to try to forget. You try to distract yourself from remembering - by drinking too much, smoking, doing drugs, studying/working hard, exercising, devoting yourself to religion, daydreaming, shopping, eating too much, attempting suicide, falling in love with a wrong person for wrong reasons (seeking approval/reassurance, or just being abused again) etc. (You can add to the list - any compulsive activity would do). You spend so much energy to distract your thoughts to something, anything so you won't remember. Well, of course, you can appear totally indifferent and out of touch with reality. Since you focus on self-destructiveness and have little attention left for others or for yourself, you don't really alive in the normal sense. You hope to be amnesiac. You hope to be someone else. You hope to escape.

The bad news is that you won't forget. Emotionally charged memory is very persistent and resilient to forgetting. There's reason for this. Evolutionary it makes sense to remember dangerous situations and avoid them for survival. When we face emotionally (physically) arousing situations, stress-hormones are released. These hormones enhance memory. (However, excessive exposure to the stress-hormone can seriously damage neurons. The hippocampus - the region of the brain for explicit memory - is most susceptible to harm from the stress-hormone. Therefore, in the long run, the exposure to excessive stress - as in war, or as in prolonged abuse - can cause memory related abnormalities).

It is unfortunate that we can't select what to keep and what to discard from the memory. The bad things happen to people at random - people aren't responsible nor at fault for the events they were involved. Repression (forgetting undesirable events in the past) is rare. In fact, it is much more common for people to remember traumatic events rather vividly than other ordinary everyday events. It is possible to forget some details. It is also possible not to talk about it or not to think about it. But these events aren't likely forgotten. You can go on trying to fool yourself, until one day, you simply wake up screaming and admit that you won't really forget.

Telling people simply to forget the events is the worst advice anyone can give. Since it motivates them to go on self-destructive binges all over again. I think, without accepting your past, you won't accept yourself. If you won't accept yourself, nobody else will. If you feel hopeless, you are hopeless. If you feel unloved, then you are unloved. I suppose you just tell yourself you've done nothing wrong. It wasn't your fault. You won't forget. Maybe you shouldn't forget. Maybe you don't need to. You just allow the memory to live with you.

But for all I know, getting used to the past for some people is hard. It's like a black-hole. On the upside, traumatic events tell us how precious our lives are. Things can be pretty bad: however, you realize that things can be pretty good too. In the way, it's a gift to be able to tell good from bad. It's a gift to be able to feel or to see more than others. You appreciate life more. I think if you can dream for yourself, that's good too. If you look forward for the future, I think there will be hope. The future is always yours. You have choices. It's really your responsibility to accept what you can't change. If you allow changes, they will happen. Right (I'm hopeful).

Source(s): Daniel L. Schacter, "Searching for memory: the brain, the mind, and the past", (New York, 1996).


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