We’ve all done it – you’re going about your business and suddenly think of that time in high school when you said something really stupid that you’d never say now.
Or that time a few years ago when you made a social blunder.
You cringe and just want to die of embarrassment.
Why do these negative memories seem to pop into our minds? And why do we still feel so embarrassed, when the occasion is long gone?
How do memories come into our consciousness?
Current thinking is that there are two ways we recall experiences from our past.
One way is intentional and voluntary. For example, if you try to remember what you did at work yesterday or what you had for lunch last Saturday. This involves a deliberate and painstaking process in which we search for the memory in our minds.
The second way is involuntary and spontaneous. These are memories that just seem to “pop” into our minds and may even be unwanted or intrusive. So where does this second type of memory come from?
Part of the answer lies in how memories are linked together. The current understanding is that our past experiences are represented in connected networks of cells located in our brains, called neurons.
These neurons develop physical connections with each other through the overlapping information in these representations.
For example, memories may share a type of setting (different beaches you’ve been to, restaurants you’ve eaten at), occur in similar periods of life (childhood, high school years), or have emotional and thematic overlap (times they’ve loved or argue with others).
An initial activation of a memory could be triggered by external stimuli from the environment (sights, sounds, tastes, smells) or internal stimuli (thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations).
Once the neurons containing these memories are activated, the associated memories are more likely to be recalled into conscious awareness.
An example might be walking past a bakery, smelling fresh bread, and spontaneously thinking about last weekend when you cooked a meal for a friend. This can then lead to a memory of when the toast was burnt and there was smoke in the house.
Not all activation will result in a conscious memory, and sometimes the associations between memories may not be entirely clear to us.
Why do memories make us feel?
When memories come to mind, we often experience emotional reactions to them. In fact, involuntary memories tend to be more negative than voluntary ones. Negative memories also tend to have a stronger emotional tone than positive memories.
Humans are more motivated to avoid bad outcomes, bad situations, and bad self-definitions than to seek good ones. This is probably due to the pressing need to survive in the world: physically, mentally and socially.
Thus, involuntary memories can make us feel intense sadness, anxiety, and even shame about ourselves.
For example, a memory involving embarrassment or shame may indicate to us that we have done something that others may find unpleasant or negative, or that we have somehow violated social norms.
These emotions are important to feel and we learn from our memories and these emotional reactions to handle future situations differently.
Does this happen to some people more than others?
This is all good and most of all we are able to remember our past and experience emotions without much anxiety. But it can happen to some people more than others, and with stronger emotions.
One clue as to why comes from research on mood-matching memory. This is the tendency to be more likely to recall memories that are consistent with our current mood.
So, if you’re feeling sad, you’re more likely to recall memories associated with disappointments, loss, or shame.
Feeling stressed or bad about yourself? You are more likely to recall times when you felt scared or uncertain.
In some mental health disorders, such as major depression, people recall memories that evoke negative emotions more often, the negative emotions are relatively stronger, and these feelings of shame or sadness are perceived as events about the self. That is, feelings become facts.
Another thing that is more likely in some mental health disorders is rumination. When we ruminate, we repeatedly think about past negative experiences and how we felt or felt about them.
On the surface, the function of rumination is to try to “process” what happened and learn something or solve problems so that these experiences do not happen again.
While this is a good idea in theory, when we ruminate we get stuck in the past and re-experience negative emotions without much benefit.
Not only that, but it means that these memories in our neural networks are more strongly linked to other information and are even more likely to be recalled involuntarily.
Can we stop negative emotions?
The good news is that memories are very customizable. When we recall a memory, we can process it and change our thoughts, feelings, and assessments of our past experiences.
In a process referred to as “reconsolidation,” changes can be made so that the next time the memory is recalled it is different from what it once was and has an altered emotional tone.
For example, we may remember a time when we felt anxious about a test or a job interview that didn’t go so well, and we feel sad or ashamed.
Reflecting, processing, and reframing that memory might include remembering some aspects of it that went well, integrating it with the idea that you met a challenge even though it was difficult, and reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel stressed or frustration over difficult things and does not make us failures or bad people.
Through this process of rewriting experiences in a way that makes sense and is self-compassionate, their prominence in our lives can be reduced and our self-esteem and well-being can be improved.
When it comes to rumination, an evidence-based strategy is to recognize when it’s happening and try to shift attention to something absorbing and sensory (for example, doing something with your hands or focusing on images or sounds). This shift in attention can short-circuit rumination and get you to do something more valuable.
In general, remember that although our brains will give us little reminders of our experiences, we don’t need to be stuck in the past.
David John Hallford, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist, Deakin University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.