The field of memory research is an exciting one; it’s constantly evolving, offering new insights and findings that continually expand our understanding of how memory functions. And now it seems memory is far more fluid, dynamic and creative than originally thought.
A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Northwestern University has found that memory edits the past with present experiences. As lead author Donna Jo Bridge explains, memory helps us survive by adapting to an ever changing environment to help us deal with what’s important now.
“Memory is not like a video camera,” Bridge said. “Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world. It’s built to be current.”
This study has shifted my conceptualisation of memory. Therapists (okay, at least me) tend to think of memory as a perceptual filter. Memory provides our own unique way of seeing the world. It’s like wearing glasses: the type of lens with which we see the world is coloured and shaped by our past. This concept is illustrated by the statement “I am who I am right now because of what’s happened to me.”
In the therapy room, a person’s past is usually discussed at length. When someone remembers an event, they are literally re-membering it, putting the pieces back together. This is how the past is re-created and re-told in the present moment. Because of this, I always assumed that memory pulls fragments from the past into the present.
But this study demonstrates that memory may actually work the other way. Memory actually uses fragments from the present and inserts them into the past. Memory rewrites the past with current information, updating recollections with new experiences.
This action is mediated through the hippocampus, a part of the brain located within the limbic system involved in the formation of new memories. It is also associated with emotions, learning and navigation.
The study compares the hippocampus to a film editor, but I’m more inclined to stick with the classical image of weaving on a loom. Specifically I think of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, military strategy, and the arts. Her importance in terms of memory is certainly implied in all her gifts, but especially concerning wisdom. You need memory of life experiences in order to transform this into wisdom. Athena, being known as the most talented weaver, calls to mind the connection between time and memory – the loom is an ancient symbol of the ability to weave the past and present together, often to affect the future. Intricate patterns and stories can be told through images depicted on the fabric. It all depends on how the threads are woven together. Change the pattern, and you change the story.
It can be this way with counselling and psychotherapy. One of the most incredible things that can happen in therapy is personal transformation, and one of the hallmarks of this is that an individual has changed their relationship to their past. It’s not about forgetting, it’s about healing and reframing. That’s why I find the Northwestern study so interesting; it’s helping to reveal how this reframing happens. The hippocampus is basically using our present experiences to weave new information into older memories. It is helping us integrate life experiences together in a new way.
The research is noted for showing specifically how memory is ‘faulty’. This of course has implications for eye witness accounts in court and for recovered memories. There is no such thing as a perfect memory. It is a dynamic, fluid, and creative process.
A couple things to note. This is the first study of its kind; much more research is needed to study and replicate the phenomenon. Also, the research was conducted in a controlled environment, so to a degree the conclusions are being extrapolated into a non-controlled environment – life! That being said, I look forward to any new developments in the area.
The original press release from Northwestern.
D. J. Bridge, J. L. Voss. Hippocampal Binding of Novel Information with Dominant Memory Traces Can Support Both Memory Stability and Change. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (6): 2203 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3819-13.2014
image: Salvador Dali, Lugubrious Game