Most of us go through life and have some things we wish we could forget, or at the very least change about our past. Regret is a sorely common human emotion. It may be true that the older we get, the more likely we are to have regrets. However, no one is fully protected from regret, desire, and hope for the past long gone.
As much as sci-fi will have us thinking we can freeze our bodies, and see our dreams on a screen, and put our consciousness outside of our brains, we’re really far away from this being accessible. If you find yourself wondering if there’s a way to change or edit your memories, then you’ve come to the right place.
What is a memory?
Most people think of human memory as similar to a computer memory storage; a bunch of files, and each time you access one, your mind plays it out like a movie. This movie is vague, vivid, clear, or unfocussed depending on how well you remember the information or event you are trying to recall.
This could not be further from the truth!
Human brains are a marvel in biology. Each time you recall a memory, retrieve an event from the past, attempt to remember a specific detail, person, idea; your brain performs a complex function that can be accurately explained as rewiring the connections between your neurons. In essence, it is growing and changing with every recall. This would be like if every time you retrieved a file on your computer, it underwent a software update. Every. Single. Time. This helps us understand how cognitively expensive the process of recalling a memory is.
In the previous example of a movie, it would be like the movie is being edited as you are recalling and watching it again with each recall. Further, you are re-memorising the memory itself. This changes the memory with each recall.
As far as psychotherapy goes, this information is invaluable when working with traumatic memories or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our brains have the power to and are continually editing each memory we ever recall. The research provides valuable insight into processes we can leverage to improve quality of life and wellbeing, and reduce distress.
Why Edit Memories?
Now, besides the obvious reason mentioned above, what does editing memories do for us? We look at what functions memories serve in our life.
Our memories about our own life and lived experiences largely drive our behaviours, values, and attitudes. They even help us form ideas about our own identities. Everyone knows the experience of getting a speeding ticket, and then being extra careful because you don’t want to risk being pulled over and face a fine again. The memory of the previous experience helps in directing behaviour to avoid the same outcome. If you undergo a negative experience after taking a risk, you are less likely to take additional risks in the future! Even if they are calculated, smart risks!
The opposite is also true. If you take risks and it leads to a positive outcome, you are likely to look favourably upon risk taking in the future.
It is also important to remember that memories are not one thing in the brain. There are different types of memories. As far as negative emotions such as fear, panic, and distress, among others are concerned, the research around editing memories is intended to reduce the emotional impact of recalling a distressing memory. It is your episodic memory that stores information on the what, when, where, how, who. This means you will retain your ability to remember the event, but will be able to better manage the emotional and behavioural response of recalling a distressing memory.
Seeking help for distressing memories
It is crucial that you do not attempt to recall distressing memories alone, as this can trigger the same emotional and behavioural responses you may have had at the time the memory was created (panic, fear, helpless, etc). If you struggle with distressing memories of traumatic or painful events from the past, it is important to reach out to a psychologist or a trained mental health professional who can first assess if this is a case of PTSD.
They will then be able to provide you with support and guide you through evidence based interventions that take into account the latest research and findings to ensure you meet your goals. It is important to realise that memories do not exist in a vacuum and there are often ripple effects to account for. Seeking professional help will ensure that your best interests and well-being are prioritised in treatment.