The memory keeper – how to recall your happiest moments
OUR LIVES ARE FULL OF RANDOM, JOYFUL EXPERIENCES, BUT WE DON’T ALWAYS REMEMBER THEM. ULRIKE FACH-VIERTH FINDS OUT HOW TO ‘HIT RECORD’ ON OUR HAPPIEST MOMENTS
Before bed, I always open my bedroom window for a moment, close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. In winter, the crisp, cold night air filling my lungs brings back fond memories of skiing holidays. I’ve always loved snow, and was an avid skier – but now I suffer from multiple sclerosis so I can’t even walk on snow without falling. But while my skiing days are long gone, just breathing in the cold air conjures up vivid images of mountains, ski jumps and rustic cabins. These images make me happy, and cast light on my darkest moments.
“Anyone who doesn’t remember the good things has no hope,” said German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and I couldn’t agree more. The power of happy memories is wonderful, and I wish I could fill my head with them so I’d never have reason to despair.
It also makes me ponder how much influence and control do we have over our memory?
THE THEATRE IN OUR MIND
Why we’re working on the screenplay of our life
The memory is something that has fascinated philosophers, artists and scientists since time immemorial. Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, compared memory to a wax tablet engraved with our experiences. One idea from the Renaissance period suggests that we think of the memory as a theatre. The past is re-enacted in our mind, and we are the screenwriters who continually reinvent our own life story.
Modern science backs up this idea of a “theatre in the mind”. In his new book We Are Memory, memory researcher Martin Korte writes that “at no point in our life can the memory store information precisely, flawlessly or completely, nor can it create an accurate picture of our past. That is in fact not its job. We instead store feelings and meanings we attribute to situations, and these memories change each time new ones are stored, to the effect that we are constantly working on the script of our own life.”
Martin adds that, while our memory doesn’t go so far as to make up events, our memories are easily influenced by the way we recall them. So it is up to us to fill the photo album in our mind with lots of happy, colourful pictures.
This finding particularly gives me hope during difficult times when I tend to want my old life back – an attitude which, I’ve come to realise, is completely ridiculous. After all, my ‘old life’ is always there – I carry it around with me in my head. To lead a largely positive life, we need only fill our mind
with lovely memories.
THE MEMORY AS A LIVING ROOM
While surfing the net, I come across a scientific article that talks about the concept of the memory as a living room. Apparently, our brain doesn’t hoard memories, but rather keeps processing them, shunting them back and forth – as if we’re constantly arranging or refurbishing the house in our mind. Just as when we’re decorating our homes, choosing colours, shapes and materials that foster a sense of wellbeing, we can do the same to the room in our head.
Brain researcher Hans Joachim Markowitsch explains, “The more an event affects us, the more intensively it will be stored in the brain. Feelings are the guardians of our memory.”
Our ability to remember is determined by the limbic system, which is home to our feelings. If this “feelings centre” considers a stimulus to be particularly positive or negative, it releases more chemical messengers like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin.
“A detailed snapshot of a situation is taken and stored in the memory,” says Hans. “Just like a particularly vibrant picture, these events are later more easily retrieved from the vast archive of memories.”
THE IMAGE ARCHIVE
Why we can feel memories vividly
We need our senses in order to retrieve our vibrant archive of experiences. They’re our memory-carriers, so to speak. We see a certain image, a face, a landscape – and we remember. We listen to a certain melody, notice a certain smell, touch a certain surface or taste a certain taste – and we remember.
Conversely, this means that intense memory experiences are impossible without keen sensory perception – that process in which an uplifting associative chain is triggered by an extremely effective sensory cue in a single moment. And the whole thing doesn’t just play out in our heads; it is a full-body experience. At that moment, we are able to vividly and directly feel those old emotions again.
Just as, over the winter, I was uplifted by the memory of skiing down snowcovered slopes simply because I felt the cold air. Or how now, in summer, I am once again experiencing the joy of running along the beach, simply as a result of sitting on a bench by the sea and looking out over the water. Our brain does not distinguish between reality and imagination – the happiness hormones are released in roughly the same way in both cases.