Forgetting Memories


MemoriesOver the past year, I’ve used this blog to muse on the myriad ways in which our memories can be an unreliable clue to our past. Implicit in those musings was a belief that most of us (especially those of us who are writers) wish to keep our memories intact.

There are, however, those—victims of trauma from abuse, accidents or the horrors of war—who wish to forget their memories and the emotional pain associated with them.  In recent years, scientists have sought ways to treat those whose painful memories obstruct their daily lives. One approach seeks to preserve the actual memory but separate it from the negative emotions associated with it.  Possible treatments include drug interventions as well as “extinction therapy,” one type of behavior modification.

A fascinating survey of this research appears in a recent New Yorker article, “Partial Recall.”  It’s worth reading just for the education you’ll get in the neuroscience of memory.

  • every memory “depends on a chain of chemical interactions that connects millions of neurons to one another … they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them …”
  • synapses are affected by proteins, some of which strengthen memory while others weaken or interfere with it.  One track of scientific research seeks to identify and harness the genes that produce these proteins.
  • Short-term memories are formed from neurochemicals, while long-term memories are transferred over time to different parts of the brain, depending on the nature of the memory.
    • Procedural memory (baking cookies) is spread throughout the brain
    • Emotional memory (love, hate, anger) resides in the amygdala, a tiny bunch of neurons located behind the eyes.
    • Conscious memory (a lunch date) as well as contextual information (the artwork on the wall of the restaurant where you had lunch) is found in the hippocampus.
  • Recalling memories requires information to re-trace the original pathways.  Depending on the circumstances, the memory may be changed by the very process of trying to recall it.

As I digested this last point, I realized I had come full circle—to the unreliability of memory.  Understanding the scientific basis for lost or altered memories offers the potential to help trauma victims.  But it does nothing to get my lost memories back, or provide clues for how to stop losing memories in the future.

Do you have memories you want to forget … or memories you’d like to retrieve?


A Fitting Place

This week, I’ve taken a brief break from discussion of issues relevant to my novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to do a guest blog on one of the topics, please contact me here to obtain a copy of the guidelines.

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  1. I’m drawn like a magnet to articles about the brain, neuroscience, and memory. Yes, I remember the article in my May 19 issue of the New Yorker and note that Daniela Schiller’s research centers “on the connection between memory and fear, ” which makes me wonder how many of my memories could be buried under a cloud of fear, not the kind of fear Schiller’s father experienced as a Holocaust survivor, but fears experienced over the course of one’s life-time.

    Also, I found it fascinating that she concluded that “memory is ‘what you are now, not what you think you were in the past. When you change the story you created, you change your life.'” I think you expressed that sentiment even more clearly in one of your bullet points: Depending on the circumstances, the memory may be changed by the very process of trying to recall it. It will be interesting to test these theories and more when I visit my family in June. Years ago I accused my sister of remembering things that never happened while we were growing up. Knowing what I know now about memory, I would never make such a rash statement now.

    Fascinating article, probing post. Great title too, Mary.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … your comment about your sister harks back to the blog I did a while back on cryptomnesia … memories we have, without knowing their source. It came up because of a childhood event Oliver Sachs related in his memoir. A family member pointed out that he hadn’t been there, but had internalized a description of the event from a letter. And, as this article pointed out, people can made to remember things that never happened simply from the context in which they are presented.

      Very tricky stuff, this memoir business.

  2. The article and the comment from Marian goes right to the troublesome point of memoir. Is it what happened or how you remember it? Or as one of the Sandoval sisters says regarding the family diaries: “We wrote as we lived through the events, and we wrote what we remembered later. Which are the more true, the memories then or those simmered over time?” From The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood.

  3. Mary Gottschalk says

    Sandra .. A critical point. My memory of certain events from our sailing voyage is substantially different from what I originally wrote in my journals at the time … altered in part by years of retelling those events under different circumstances and to different audiences with different interests, and in part by taking a longer (more adult, perhaps) view of memories that were colored by my emotional state at the time.

    I would still like to resurrect our idea of doing cross blogs …. are you still interested?

  4. I am fascinated by the topic of memory. NPR is or was doing series. I heard this segment on taking photographs and memory:
    Researchers found that although people were taking photographs “to remember,” most often when they took the photographs, they remembered less about the actual object or event.

    I have this vivid memory of being a little girl and taking one of those old-fashioned elevators with the gates that close while visiting my grandparents’ apartment. However, my mom says they didn’t have an elevator like that in their apartment house, so I have no idea where this memory came from.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Meril … You’re the third person to mention that NPR segment, and I am so glad you noted the link here, as I missed it, and would love to listen to it. I’ve always thought that carrying a camera — a real one with f-stops and such— made me look more carefully at my surroundings. Where’s the light coming from? What’s the background? etc etc. But that seems to be an entirely different activity than picture taking with a iPhone.

      • Yes, in the segment one of the researchers said that when people concentrated on the light, etc.–which I suppose you could also do with an iPhone–or when they focused on a particular memorable aspect of an object, they did remember. It’s like you have to tell your brain to stop and remember this, or else it just goes into default and wipes the memory since you’re taking a photo.

  5. Great subject. Unfortunately, unreliable memory has caused a lot of pain and grief. Some witness statements, trauma victims’ memories, and memoirs may be more emotional than reality based especially when anger or revenge driven. The example you give above about your own experience with unreliable memory – your memories vs. your journals – should prove this point. A lot of us who kept journals share this experience. However, playing devil’s advocate, that leads to another question: are journals a true reflection of our emotions? Most people don’t have the ability to write what they truly feel whereas emotions are locked into their memory. It’s shocking to persuade ourselves that something happened when it didn’t or when the outcome was entirely different to what we remember. It’s as shocking to realize that we have spent a lifetime covering up the truth.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Penelope .. a wonderful question about the truth of journals. Do we keep journals as a form of memory, or to create an image of life the way we want it to be. One wry commenter on Anais Nin observed that her (very idiosyncratic) life took form only when she wrote it down in her diary.

      When I think of my journals from the sailing trip, I believe they pretty accurately reflect how I “felt” at the moment, but it was shocking to me to realize how often they didn’t reflect the “truth” of the situation because my emotional state (e.g. anger) led me to distort what actually happened.

  6. What is memory? Is it safe to say that memory is simply a perception, “real” or “distorted?” Memoirs represent “truth” as perceived by the person remembering and how the experience affected them at that particular moment. It’s okay if we have different truths becsuse we have different perspectives.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      LaTanya … the work in neuroscience is increasingly portraying memory as a series of physiological events which can be interrupted or altered by subsequent physiological events. Does this alter the value I place on memory? Perhaps it’s similar to the question about the stars … are they any less beautiful now that we know the crass physical stuff of which they are made?