We all like to believe that our memories are accurate, that the inner films and images of our past that bubble up into our awareness are true, and the stories we tell of ourselves are accurate. But what if our autobiographies are actually constructions, that each time we recite our life’s events—to someone else, or in our thoughts—we rewrite each remembrance, forever changing the contents? What if our memories have always been, in essence, fabrications built of the expectations and moods present in each retelling.
Just as it appears that the sun revolves around the earth, it generally seems to those uninformed that the sounds and images of memory are essentially neurally written into the memory centers of the brain after a significant event, and that our recollections are activations of the original cognitions. If a past event seems crisp and clear, in this belief, its because the original encodings have remained essentially unaltered.
Yet despite how real our past appears, significant research by the NYU neuroscience lab, led by Joseph LeDoux, demonstrates that each time we recall a memory it has to be restored, rewritten using protein synthesis (often in the temporal lobe) so it can be recalled in the future. In essence, each time we remember the past we rewrite it, and the underlying mood and beliefs present during each retelling affects how it will be reconsolidated in the brain.
These revelations are of significant import, of course, when it comes to eye-witness testimony, but the implications are even more impressive when we turn to the treatment of traumatic events and subsequent fear. Let’s start by reviewing how fear works: Anxiety and panic result from an associative, unconscious link between a stimuli—aka a “trigger”—and a feeling of vulnerability. Once an event links a trigger with danger, each time we subsequently encounter the trigger, a physiological state of fear will quickly arise, well before conscious awareness. The breath will become short, the blood will start pumping, muscles will tense; the mind will jump to alert, trying to understand our state of unease. For example, should we get into a car accident while listening to Fugazi’s terrific “Waiting Room,” as we hear the track in years to follow, discomfort will arise; we’ll start to panic and want to turn off the track, even though Fugazi didn’t cause the accident. Only the slow process of re-exposing Fugazi to the Amygdala (the region of the brain that makes fear associations) will allow us to eventually listen to the band with some state of ease.
Now, recent research shows that we can weaken the disruptive agitation of conditioned fear responses by focusing on relaxing the body and breath each time a frightening event is consciously recalled. In other words, we can put on “Waiting Room” and breath slowly, extending the exhalations, relaxing the abdomen, keeping in mind the image of someone with whom we feel safe. The process of removing the fear of the song will be significantly sped up. Memories can eventually be held with ease; triggers rendered increasingly neutral.
Finally, to those who might argue that we shouldn’t meddle with memories, its worth noting that we “meddle” with them whether we like it or not; each time we remember anything we’re changing it for good. So why not change our recollections towards that which makes our present lives increasingly tolerable? In other words, parts of our past we run from today might be far more manageable tomorrow.