When we talk about ghosts, we might be referring to a supernatural something, the feature of horror films. We might laugh, consider such things ridiculous. But I’ve been thinking about ghosts a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how we are all haunted, in a way, by the past.
Memories resurface and make themselves known when we least expect it. It can be as simple as seeing a person in a particular coloured t-shirt, or hearing a name, or thoughts wandering idly as we put out the laundry. In seemingly random moments, memories resurface. We can “see” events unfold, again and again. These ghosts are very real.
We all have something in our minds that we regret, that we’re ashamed of, or that has embedded itself, a kind of trauma, to be relived.
The past is a difficult thing to process, when we have already selected out the memories to keep. Often, these are negative memories — the ones that told you you weren’t good enough, couldn’t achieve, or hemmed you in. Why is that?
Why and How We Remember: Accuracy and Survival
According to Ming Zhou, Professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Physiology, “We remember who is not good to [us]. That’s how you survive. Those people who are good to you, who don’t bother your survival, you tend to not remember them.”
So, there’s a reason we tend towards the negative: to reinforce survival.
According to Elizabeth Kensinger of Boston College:
“The details you remember about a negative event are more likely to be accurate.”
This is because of the heightened emotional experience attached to the event:
“When we’re having an emotional reaction, the emotional circuitry in the brain kind of turns on and enhances the processing in that typical memory network such that it works even more efficiently and even more effectively to allow us to learn and encode those aspects that are really relevant to the emotions that we’re experiencing.” (LiveScience)
Prickling our emotions makes us more likely to remember what we experienced. So not only do we highlight those things that might be essential to keep us ‘safe’ in future, we also do a better job of remembering things with heightened emotion attached — particularly negative emotions. We more accurately remember those things.
This makes sense. We remember stories that pull the heartstrings better than those that had little effect on us. Between the survival instinct which codes negative experiences as essential warnings for the future, coupled with strong emotional reactions, we’re really up against it when it comes to moving past negative events that have happened to us. We are really likely to remember that embarrassing scene, or a moment of violence. We’re likely to forget days that were gentle, easy, where we laughed or took pleasure in simplicity.
We’re wired up for ghosts, in essence.
What We Remember: Association and Reliving
Our memories aren’t singular either. We associate everything we experience as a matter of course, drawing similar ideas and images together to recall information.
This is why we get the phrase “triggered”. We can have a memory triggered as a result of something rather benign, let alone more emphatic or descriptive language. We make associations between a vast network of things, all of which can lead to each other in our recall.
In Louder Than Words, Benjamin K. Bergen talks also about embodied simulation. “We use our visual system not only to detect visible things in the real world but also to mentally simulate non-present things,” he says. In other words, we might take a sentence like The milk got left on the counter overnight and construct each component part of the sentence visually in our minds — a counter, a glass, milk that is going a bit off.
He also talks through an early study using fMRI, which asked people to memorise twenty words associated with either a sound or a picture. This was meant to explore whether brain regions active when recalling sounds or pictures were the same as the ones responsible for actually hearing or seeing stimuli. Similarly, a study asked participants to recall turning the key in their front door. In this case, fists were often inadvertently clenched as part of the process of ‘remembering’. In both studies, there was overlap between the parts of the brain asked to perform the action (fist clenching, hearing or seeing) and the part of the brain dedicated to remembering those actions.
While I’m not going into exceptional detail here, it suggests that, even if the motor action we’re recalling isn’t as strong as during actual action, we have something like a ‘taste’ for that action even in memory. We bodily recall the things that we were doing, as part of mentally recalling. So even if we don’t perform the action we remember, every time we remember it, we still ‘experience’ it as part of remembering. We engage the actual stimuli as part of remembering.
The rise of “trigger warnings” and the (occasionally snide) use of the word “triggered” acknowledge something legitimate: we do a toned down version of ‘reliving’ the things that haunt us with every instance of a memory trigger.
By reliving these heightened emotional experiences, we make it much harder to ever forget — we are reliving them, even if it isn’t a full re-enactment (i.e. even if we aren’t ‘moving’). We are rewriting that pain, shame, or whatever was felt, with every act of remembering.
The Consequences of Remembering: Long Term Health
If remembering is a partial reliving, what are the long term effects on our health?
Nadine Burke Harris’s TEDTalk really hit home for me just what the effects of about how early adversity and stress in childhood affect your health for a lifetime. She doesn’t associate this with memory in her speech; she is talking about later health risks as a result of overactive stress reactions in the body at early age.
Namely, she discusses ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and how having an ‘ACE’ in your history can affect long term health. These can be things like having a parent who was mentally ill, or had a substance abuse problem. It can also include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or emotional or physical neglect, amongst many other things. In essence, every ACE you have increases your risk of other health problems in the future. And they are incredibly common — 50% of surveyed individuals in England had at least 1 ACE; 8% had 4 ACEs or more.
There is evidence to suggest that if trauma is a part of your history, the effect of bad memories can be worsened — you might lose the ability to control bad memories in general.
You may not have any ACEs, or a history of trauma. The memories you’re recalling may not have happened in youth; they might be more recent. But there’s something here to suggest that memory impacts the way we live — the way we take care of ourselves, the things we next choose to expose ourselves to. Bad luck is a thing, I think. But so is reinforcement of behaviour and beliefs through our internalised choices. The way we compensate for what we believe, the way we go out and live as a result, is all there in what we think we know. What we think we have experienced, and how we have internalised this.
We carry our ghosts through every decision that affects our health, our happiness and our future.
The Future: Rewriting Ourselves
Elizabeth Loftus’s fascinating TEDTalk on memory introduces the notion that memories aren’t always as straightforward as we might think. They aren’t always easy to hold onto, and it isn’t a matter of simply calling one up, like opening a file on a hard drive. Early on in her speech she says that memory is “constructed”; it’s influenced not only by what we think we remember, but also by other people. As we remember, we also can rewrite those memories.
This suggests that we can add to our ghosts; we can give them new details, we can change them. This could go many ways.
We can add to the network of ‘triggers’ — we can associate more and more with our memories. We can also question them, unpack them, and suggest alternatives. We might eventually, in time, forget them. And there’s a desirability in forgetting.
The way we adjust our behaviour and the way we process emotions as a result of the things we have internalised (and the ‘rules’ or ‘beliefs’ we have created as a result) can manifest negatively. Anxiety and depression are common results. The way we automatically process information and experience as a result of this conditioning through life leads us to the place where we aren’t as happy, or healthy, as we would like.
The concept of automatic thinking plays a big role in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In these sorts of therapy sessions, therapists often attempt to pull out the ‘rules’ or ‘beliefs’ that govern our behaviour. They do this by starting with your history, a description of your troubles, the thoughts that go with them… Eventually you draw out the things that sit behind your behaviour. The thoughts you use to limit or determine your responses in life.
Therapists encourage clients to question the automatic thoughts, the rules and beliefs that develop as a result of the way we have processed events and experiences in life. If you’re in therapy, generally you’ve acknowledged something is amiss — the way you’re living, the way you’re responding, is flawed. You’re in pain, perhaps, or wanting to change things. This is the most widespread therapy used to tackle this, and it does offer a methodical approach to making change.
You might not have experienced something you consider ‘extreme’, but when it comes to rewriting your own memories, what methods would you use? What would you do to free yourself? There is evidence to suggest that sleep therapy is an option, where patients don’t actually have to endure the painful process of exposing themselves actively to sources of trauma. Some people are into tapping, or try out EMDR.
For many of us, individual or group CBT might well be sufficient. The great benefit of CBT is its accessibility and the evidence that backs its use, particularly for tackling anxiety.
But the first barrier, I feel, is wanting to change things. There’s something in our culture that says our memories make us ‘who we are’, and that means we have to hold onto them. We have to ‘embrace’ them, somehow, for getting us to now. We have to keep waking up next to our ghosts, because ‘that’s life’.
I no longer agree.
It has taken me a long time to ask for help, to alleviate these memories that I have used to berate myself with again and again. It’s taking a long time to move past automatic negative thoughts, into more positive ones. But it isn’t impossible. It takes time, it takes a degree of self-awareness but also determination. It takes realising that the ghosts you’ve got are the ones you’ve created; not alone, of course, because they’re the result of something external. But you’ve been keeping them alive. Not willingly perhaps. But even so.
In the end, we are made of memory, yes. But that doesn’t mean we have to hold fast to those memories that are now getting in the way of living life.
We might always have ghosts, but they don’t all have to haunt us.
- Elizabeth Loftus’s fantastic TEDTalk
- Nadine Burke Harris’s fantastic TEDTalk
- Sleep Therapy
- The following sites:
Why Your Brain Forces You to Relive Your Worst Memories
Here's a fun exercise to demolish any remaining will you have to live: think about the worst memory you have. What are…
Memory replay prioritizes high-reward memories
Why do we remember some events, places and things, but not others? Our brains prioritize rewarding memories over…