When unpleasant and painful experiences get stored in your brain, they can have real negative mental and physical consequences but when you understand the process your brain uses to store and recall negative memories, you can begin to understand how you can change them.

There are different kinds of memory that are supported by different brain systems. One major distinction is between working memory and long-term memory. Long-term memory can be further divided into explicit and implicit. The contents of your implicit memory have much more impact on your everyday life than explicit.

Implicit memory includes a collection of nondeclarative forms of memory that make up your habits, skills, priming, and simple kinds of conditioning. Also called automatic memory, implicit memory is comprised of bodily sensations and images and is below your conscious awareness. It’s the basis for how you feel and function most of the time. Basically, you can think of it like a filter through which you view and narrate everything that happens.

Explicit memories are further classified as either episodic or semantic. Episodic memory is specific to an individual and contains personal details about the events of their life, for example knowing the name of your childhood pet.

Semantic memories are the common knowledge facts accumulated over our lives. They’re the indisputable bits of information not attached to emotion or personal experience. For example, knowing that the sky is blue or how to drive would be semantic memory.

Whether a negative recollection comes from implicit or explicit memory, it is “reconstructed” every time you retrieve it. Recalling a memory is an active process in which synapses connect in a particular way to construct that specific memory. Then, when you stop focusing on the memory, it becomes reconsolidated in your brain’s memory structures again.

Science shows that it is possible to overwrite something the brain has learned, in this case, a memory, in a process called “Pavlovian extinction. For example, you have a argument with a friend, its uncomfortable, but you know rationally that you two will be ok, yet you can’t stop worrying about it.

What you could do is to be aware, at the same time, of both your anxiety and a feeling of being cared for by that person. Keep making the positive feelings stronger than the negative one’s while being aware of them both at the same time.

After about 10 minutes you can let the anxiety go and stay with the feeling of being cared for by the other person. If the worry about the relationship returns, its likely to be a lot milder as a result of this practice, and the more you do it, the greater impact it will have on your brain.”

This method may be merely providing an alternate association for the negative material while leaving the original learning (memory) intact. The original association may still be retrieved in the future depending on the context or trigger but its important for us to know when a memory is reconsolidated when recalled, and stored again this is when we can change it.

April 2024