Good Memories, Bad Memories, And the Artful Work of Shaping Our Stories

In the beginning of 2021 I started a personal research project on the subject of memory, something I’ve been giving some time to off and on over the past 6 months. One of the aspects of memory that I have found interesting to dig into was this seeming competing relationship between how it is that we remember the good and the seeming ease with which we remember the bad.

For example, it is a common when we take a trip and go on vacation to experience the vacation in the moment as challenging, frustrating and exhausting. And yet for most, when we look back on that vacation after the fact we tend to remember the good rather than the bad. While this appears to connect directly to whe ways in which we establish our memories and translate those memories to an accepted narrative, what is intersting to note is that research also seems to suggest that it is far easier to remember the bad than the good.

Despite still knowing very little about how memory works, theories abound about how these two seemingly contradictory truths seem to work together. But one thing seems to be clear- if most of our brains are prone to remembering the bad (which seems to biologically be the case, developing as a survival mechanism), the way we remember something as good is by thinking about our memory and actually (actively) reforming that memory into something good or emphasing the good portions of that memory. For example, it is possible when recalling a memory and thinking about that memory to take what was wholly negative in the moment and associate it with something humorous, allowing ourselves to laugh at what at the time made us frustrated. Or we can choose to elevate that sunset as the interpretive picture through which to understand the flat tire. On the extreme end we can also actively control the flow of the narrative, shaping the plot of a that vacation in a positive direcion.

In other words, while our brains might be designed to remember that encounter with a bear or that flat tire or that horrible hotel room, it would seem that there is a degree of natural agency in how we translate those bad memories into a good experience. Biologically speaking it seems to be true that the good takes longer to store and requires thought to retrieve, but what might be even more important is the ability of our minds to translate bad experiences into a positive or good narrative that, in the larger scope of our life story has the power to actively reshape our understanding of ourselves, others, God and the world.

I’ve been thinking lately about what the dominant narative of my own life is. I have found that, as someone with an anxiety disorder, that I tend to struggle between the bad and good on a daily basis, and when I engage in exercises that try and recall and locate the story of my life and make sense of how it is that I find myself where I am today, there is a strong tendency to wrestle with competing storylines that can write that in one direction or another. This is likely why many tend to call me positive and optimstic, while at the same time I find I dwell a lot on the negative and hold a high degree of cynicism. This is the challenge and power that memory holds.

Case and point, the other day I was visiting an old house and street where I used to live when I was a young boy (see photo): It was easy to remember the chronic nightmares I experienced sleeping in the shared room on the top floor adjacent to my parents. In fact, these form the earliest memories I have of my life as a young child, reaching back to when I was 4 and 5 years old. When I dug a little more into the faint hints of that past, out came more positive memories that seemed to be equally ingrained in my mind, just buried a little further down, including days spent roaming the block with a neighborhood friend (and similar aged indiginous boy named Arnold) and encounters with super sized killer bees the size of my shoe (at least that’s how my memory recalls it).

There is also this particular memory of an old shop at the end of our street that used to sell ice cream.

What I remember about this ice cream shop was Mr. Mugs. Mr. Mugs was not only a favorite children’s story I still recall reading, butit was also a dog who looked exactly like Mr. Mugs and which used to hang out in front of the shop every day, usually lounging and waiting to say hello to passerby’s and visitors.

At the time, my young mind was convinced this was the real Mr. Mugs come to life, and I used to imagine the adventures of the book playing out in real time as a I hung out with this oversized white and grey bundle of fur. Little did I know that this would be the beginnings of a life long love affair with imagination and story, something that would serve me well in equally challenging years that lied ahead.

Which is all to say, while its a bit disconcerting to think about the ease in which our brains hold onto the bad, there is something liberating about the idea that we also have the power to reshape those memories and reform them into something positive and good. That we have some degree of control over the way we tell our stories. To be sure, this brings up some other unsetlling thoughts about just how reliable memory is and the danger and possibility of manipulating our stories in order to ignore and avoid the bad, but at a very base level knowing that intentional investement and thought can bring about change is a hopeful idea. In fact, one could argue that if we are prone to remember the bad as a survival mechanism, being able to reshape our stories as good memories is an equally important tool for living. The reason we do this after all is because while vacations might reflect difficult and frustrating experiences, we also know that vacations are important and helpful and necessary for life to prosper. To remember them as good means we will be driven to take another one even if the last one proved a disaster. Equally so when it comes to our experience of relationships. This is the power of perspective in play. And as we approach the summer and a province (where I live) still in lock down and entrenched in Covid restrictions, longing and imagining that potential vacation as something good holds a lot of sustaining power right now.

For anyone interested, this is a really interesting article on the science behind such agency to actively change and reshape our memories. It’s focus is on research into things like trauma and PTSD, but it has implications for everyday living. Of note is the fact that they are finding memories to be malliable and shapeable in that space between embedment and recall, and that this persists through the whole of our lives. Which means that even when our brains make these concrete connections between experience and memory, with that connection becoming stronger and stronger the more we recall, the fact that the memory remains shapeable everytime we recall it means that we have the opportunity to control the way we see and understand that memory as a working narrative. We can shift it, replace it and reassociate it, opening up opportunities for the bad to become something positive and good.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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