Back in the 1970s, I remember singing the lyrics to, The Way We Were, along with Barbra Streisand. Using my best falsetto, Barbra and I crooned, “Memories, light the corners of my mind.”
These lyrics aren’t technically correct. But then Barbra and the song’s lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, didn’t have access to modern brain scans. Based on neuroscience research, it would have been more accurate for Barbra and I to sing, “Memories, light the center of my mind.”
Memories live deep within the brain. If you could magically poke your index finger down through the top center of your skull, you still couldn’t quite reach your brain’s memory structures, the hippocampus and amygdala.
Memories are a fascinating electrical, molecular, cellular, and inter-structural phenomenon. I won’t be providing scientific details about memory, because then I’d have to write something about how the interaction of glucocorticoids and noradrenaline in the basolateral region of the amygdala can modulate the strength of memories in the hippocampus and other brain areas . . . and by then our fascination with memory would doubtless give way to boredom and sleepiness.
Speaking of sleepiness, it’s metaphorically accurate to say that most of our memories typically just lay around dozing in their hippocampal bed until awakened. Not surprisingly, some memories are lighter sleepers than others; they can be easily awakened. Sometimes, when sleeping memories are rudely awakened (triggered) they tend to be rather grumpy and unpleasant.
Here are three examples:
Say you’re creeping around on Facebook. You see an old high school photo from 25 years ago. The visual stimulus of the photo is a memory trigger; several related images and narratives pop into your mind. These images and narratives aren’t grumpy or unpleasant. Instead, you feel warmly nostalgic. This is an example of a visual trigger that activates a mildly pleasant set of associated memories.
In contrast, if you’re a veteran who has experienced war trauma and you hear firecrackers on the 4th of July, your consciousness may flood with vivid, multisensory memories. These memories could link to deep emotional pain. This is an example of an auditory trigger that awakens or activates disturbing memories—memories that you might prefer to put back to sleep.
Now, think of the smell of coffee in the morning. For me, the scent of coffee is neutral. No clear memories are activated. But, when coffee smells are combined with the aroma of bacon on the griddle, I have instant flashbacks to my Grandma Lucy making breakfast. This is an olfactory stimulus triggering a pleasant memory. I see my grandma’s grey hair, pulled back with bobby pins. I can see my own small hands touching and feeling the textured floral pattern on her white milk glass china as I wait for breakfast, watching her. I hear the pop of bacon sizzling. I can imagine the pain I might feel if I get too close to grandma’s griddle. I instantly know the past and future of this memory. First, Grandma Lucy peeled the bacon apart, dangling each piece before laying them on the griddle. Later, she’ll save the bacon grease, for another purpose. She was like that. Another emotion emerges. I feel sad. I miss her.
In honor of memory science, it’s important to note that each of the preceding memories may be more or less historically accurate. Even more important is the likelihood that these memories, like all memories, have changed, shifted, and evolved over time.
How can memories change? Isn’t it true that humans have an experience and then store a record of it in their brain, ready for later retrieval? Not exactly.
As it turns out, new memories are more fluid than solid. Following a memorable experience, memories stay unstable for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours. New memories are in flux and shaped or degraded by additional new experiences that immediately follow. More remarkable is the fact that, even after storage, every time memories are pulled out (or retrieved) they return to an unstable or vulnerable state, until they re-stabilize or reconsolidate. And when they reconsolidate (a process that involves cellular protein synthesis), they can include new, different, or less information. This is how and why memories change over time.
For many Americans, Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. For example, yesterday there were flowers, speeches, and flag waving. Yesterday, you were probably in the company of family, possibly kneeling at a gravesite, perhaps celebrating the life of someone whom you loved and lost.
Memorial Day is a memory trigger. It’s a time set aside to honor the lives of men and women who died in service of our country. It’s natural and good to engage in this honoring ritual. People also honor non-military family members with flowers and graveside visits. But, amidst the celebrations, as is often the case, the emotional side of life gets short shrift. Typically, we celebrate and move on, despite the fact that it’s equally natural and good to honor the grief that we feel in response to Memorial Day celebratory rituals.
It might have been the 21 gun salute or the color of the flowers or the taste of the potato salad or the smell of your uncle’s cologne. Whatever the case, yesterday you probably had old memories awaken and stroll past you in an internal memory parade. Some of these memories may have been neutral. Others may have been pleasant. Still others, felt angry, sad, guilty, or lonely.
But memories are open to change, and that fact begs for intentionality. What I mean is that we should all have a plan for Memorial Day (and then a plan for Memorial Night). Not only do we need plans for how to celebrate, we need plans for dealing with the raw emotions that Memorial Day can trigger.
I wish I could offer up a simple method for helping you to deal effectively with Memorial Day memory activation and reconsolidation. But you (and everyone) are a unique entity with layers of fantastic idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless, here’s a quick glimpse into the emerging science of memory reconsolidation.
In one research study, participants were exposed to negative emotional memories from watching a trauma film. The next day, these memories were re-activated using a trauma-photo from the film. Then, after a 10 minute-break some participants played a game of Tetris, while others didn’t. The results: Over the next seven days, the participants who played Tetris after having traumatic memories re-activated, experienced significantly fewer intrusive trauma-related memories. The implications? Maybe the Memorial Night solution is to establish a Tetris-playing ritual.
But painful memories are complex and unique. What works for one person, might not work for another. As Drexler and Wolf (authors of a 2018 scholarly review) were inspired to write, “Indeed, when the activation of selective L-type voltage-gated calcium channels or GluN2B-containing NMDA receptors in the hippocampus was prevented before retrieval, thus blocking memory destabilization . . . the interfering air puff had no effect” (p. 15). Reading this led me to conclude that reading more of Drexler and Wolf’s article might serve as another possible memory disrupting intervention to employ during the reconsolidation period. I’m guessing, if you’ve made it to this point in this blog, that you’re inclined to agree.
From a practical perspective, it’s good to know that, generally, memory reconsolidation can take up to six hours. And so, in addition to Tetris and reading intellectual research papers, there are other reasonable strategies you can use to facilitate healthy memory reconsolidation, not just on Memorial Day (or Night), but any time of the year—as long as you’re within the six hour memory consolidation window.
- Talk with a trusted friend or counselor about the emotions you’re experiencing. Even better, don’t just talk about your emotional pain, but also talk about and focus on the strengths you have for coping with your challenging emotions.
- Engage in a physically strenuous activity. This could involve some sort of strenuous physical activity like cycling, running, yoga, or weight-lifting.
- Ritual is good. This could involve a culturally appropriate spiritual activity like going to a sweat lodge or attending a religious service.
- Writing is a common and effective method for expressing emotions. In particular, writing about your loss in ways that are meaningful to you can be therapeutic.
- There may be no better way to deal with problematic emotions than engaging in positive helping behavior. Alfred Adler called this social interest. When you’re triggered, consider ways in which you can shift the spotlight away from yourself and toward fostering wellness in others.
Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. We created it and we celebrate it. But you can have other, self-created memory days. And what we know about memory and the disturbing emotions that can accompany memories, is that they present us with an opportunity. Some researchers call this an opportunity for “updating.” Recognizing this opportunity and intentionally engaging in healthy and soothing behaviors when difficult memories are activated is good guidance. This might be Tetris. It might even involve singing along with Barbra Streisand in your best falsetto. The point is that we have power, albeit limited, to update our activated memories . . . and so I wish you the best in finding intentional and healthy ways to soften your painful memories. It’s the honorable thing to do.