Are your memories stuck in a grove?
Those of us old enough to remember playing our favourite record over and over again may recall how the favoured track could became a deep groove where the needle repeatedly stuck.
That deep groove is a useful analogy for how the brain works. Our brain is an incredible piece of kit whose functionality is still one of the great frontiers of scientific exploration. Our memories are triggered through all of our senses, a smell, a photograph, a sensation… all are recorded into the hippocampus, an area in the deeper brain. The hippocampus takes simultaneous memories from different sensory regions of the brain and connects them into a single “episode” of memory.
Memory works in different ways. If we remembered absolutely everything about everything (big question is how much of everything about everything do we remember? I am not a neuroscientist so for now will just wonder about this one). Short-term memory function and long term memory function serve different purposes. There is also our working memory. This is a great piece breaking the different areas down and how they all work: the film makes a key point being that retrieving the memory makes the neural paths stronger.
We can see memories like a record collection. The first single we bought, the tune we played on that holiday, the tune we danced to on that fantastic night out… the tune we played when our heart was broken. These tunes when we hear them later in life will trigger thoughts, feelings and emotions – both positive and negative. We may have 100’s of records in our collection but there will be a handful that will have a deep groove.
Memory is the same. We can get caught in a cycle of rumination, playing experiences over and over and over again triggering thoughts, feelings and emotions getting stuck in the emotional moment. Often this feels great, we look back and smile but more often we can feel unhappy. It would be great if we could choose which track we play, we would play the positive tunes all day long! However is proven that negative memories will outplay the positive. Why?
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson refers to this as “the brain’s negativity bias.” The human nervous system, he writes, “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.”
Our primitive brain does this for a very good reason. It makes sure that we remember danger so we don’t do it again. Helpful when we were cavemen to remember which rock the tiger hid behind, not quite so helpful now that tigers are not lurking behind parked cars.
The term “reptilian” refers to our primitive, instinctive brain function that is shared by all reptiles and mammals, including humans. It is the most powerful and oldest of our coping brain functions since without it we would not be alive.
So returning to the record. We can replay a tune, a memory repeatedly until it becomes an indented groove in the neural pathways of our brain. It is then logical that getting the needle out of the groove will require a conscious physical action. We can, with practice and attention, start to decide whether to keep playing the tune and deepen the track or to play a different tune?
The key is to notice when we start playing these internal tunes and to think about the following:
- Does this memory feel good?
- What is happening in my body now – am I feeling ok or am I feeling uncomfortable?
- Do I need to play this memory out?
- What would happen if I choose a different memory?
- Can I let this song end and play a new song?
When you survey your life, what memories capture your attention – your successes and pleasant times, or the failures, hurts and disappointments? Try to see it as a record, you have a choice over which songs to play and you know that each song has a beginning and an ending.
A new tune is the perfect distraction, find a new positive tune to play. Create an internal go to playlist of thoughts.
Maybe choose an actual tune and play it in those moments when you start to feel down. Do a little dance? An actual dance if you feel cool with that (standing on the tube, sitting in a traffic jam 🙂 ) if not do a dance in your head. Maybe visualise a character doing a dance and make it your internal friendly dancer. The American legal comedy-drama television series Ally McBeal was memorable for her internal character of the dancing baby. Surreal but effective.
Overall have some compassion for yourself. Our thoughts come and go. Constant replay deepens their groove.
Finally, I know that negative thoughts are a large part of depression. If you are experiencing ongoing negative thoughts that you cannot seem to lift, if you can, seek support through friends, family – people you can trust when times become tough.
For an experts approach I mentioned Rick Hanson. A favourite resource of information of mine, he has great TED talks, a great website and great books. He offers great advice on how we might hardwire happiness.