The mem­ory keeper – how to re­call your hap­pi­est mo­ments

Good Health Choices - - CONTENT -


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?


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.


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.”


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.

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