It is believed that memory is the best index of our past experiences. Is this true when considering a distressing situation?

We often rely on memory to be the most reliable source of past information. When we are often baffled while trying to remember a past event, we try to jog back into our repository of memories in order to develop an opinion or remember our perception of that event. Memory is one of the most widely applied cognitive processes, and is regarded as one of the most basic ones as well.

There are essentially 3 processes that guide the mainframe of memory. These are encoding, which involves perceiving and digesting information, storage, which essentially tucks the memories away in our minds, and retrieval, which is when we recall or access relevant information when faced with a relatable situation.

Image: Sense and Sensation

Thus, it is clear that the chain of operation is concrete. However, each type of memory that we have is stored differently within the brain. A modal view of memory gives rise to three terms. These are the sensory memory, which stores information attended to quickly by the senses, the short term memory, which stores snippets of information for around 20-30 seconds, and the long term memory essentially locks away poignant experiences for us to access long after these events have passed.

Try to recall your first day at school. It is something that has probably happened ages ago. Think about whether you can remember things from this particular day. Some of us may remember crying to our parents and refusing to enter the premises, whereas some of us may have only a faint idea. Some of us may even draw up a blank! It is quite clear that decay is something that occurs to memories, leading them to be erased from our brain. Memories are said to leave some form of a trace on the brain, through which they can be recalled. However, sometimes, automatic decay leads these to be wiped from our recalled experiences.

Image: Eero Lampinen

What about when we think about our past experiences too much? Sometimes, we try to reconstruct events and situations, and we often may get carried away while trying to frame them. We all itch to recreate our past experiences, especially if we’re trying to remember something particular. Often, the desire to recreate our memories often leads to us adding new appendages to them in order to try and flesh out our experiences. However, when we’re not crystal clear about it, it can lead to a lot of assumptions, which, as we have discussed, are taken to be true, without fact or reason.

When we try to recall something distressing, we often get agitated. In this case, memory may not eally become the best gauge of our emotions and the situation. It only serves to remind us how we felt some form of distress at that point of time. In this case, it may not be healthy for one to keep ruminating and recalling hypothetically. What one can try to do is present a narrative about the situation to one’s self. If you’ve had a fight where you’ve said some unpleasant things, unable to curb your anger, don’t merely think about it to try and understand what went wrong. Jot it down, create a narrative.

This might enable you to understand the exact chain of operations that went down, giving you an idea of how exactly the situation panned out from your perspective. Taking one’s own perspectives about a situation to a mental health professional could possibly yield prolific results in terms of having a wider perspective about the events that have been experienced. Objectivity is something that is engaged within the realm of mental health, and a detached perspective about the situation often yields a better understanding of where an individual slipped up or lost control to lead to a distressing scenario.