I read a Facebook post that generated a lot of discussion. “My mom said something mean to me when I was 8, literally, that I repeat back to myself any time I make a stupid mistake. I could probably bring it up to her and she won’t even remember it ever happened, or she ever said it. Meanwhile it stays in the back of my head.”
Why is it that we vividly recall painful experiences but the offender can’t remember it? Or why do we remember hurtful words but can’t as easily recall pleasant or mundane events?
“The ax forgets but the tree remembers.” This is a Zimbabwean proverb from the Shona tribe, meaning that a person who harms another or borrows from someone will often forget, but the person who is harmed or borrowed from will always remember.
According to researcher Elizabeth Kensinger of Boston College, negative emotions like fear and sadness trigger increased activity in a part of the brain linked to memories. These emotionally charged memories are preserved in greater detail than happy or more neutral memories, but they may also be subject to distortion. The more these emotional centers are activated by an event, the more likely an individual is to remember specific details linked to the emotional aspect of the event, and perhaps less likely to remember more mundane details like a street address. This technique of preserving bad memories may have evolved as an evolutionary tactic to protect against future life-threatening or negative events.
Lia Kvavilasvili, a psychology researcher at the University of Herfordshire, studies what she calls “mind pops”. These are thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. She finds that memories are often triggered by something in the environment that takes us back to an incident. She also finds that interrupted moments stick with us longer than those that feel completed. For example, if we don’t have an opportunity to explain or correct the initial incident. And our emotions dictate what our brains decide to hang on to. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the memory. The brain is saying, “Something important happened. Make a strong memory.”
Can we intentionally forget these hurtful words and experiences? Erasing or suppressing memories is controversial. The brain wants to store that experience as a helpful learning tool. Corinne O’Keefe Osborn writes that, “…memories are cue-dependent, which means they require a trigger. Your bad memory isn’t constantly in your head; something in your present environment reminds you of your bad experience and triggers the recall process. Identifying your most common triggers can help you take control of them. You can also re-associate a trigger with a positive or safe experience, thereby breaking the link between the trigger and the negative memory.”
We can’t prevent bad memories from popping into our head. But we can learn to manage the emotional intensity surrounding the memories. There are many therapeutic treatments designed to desensitize highly charged memories. If painful memories interfere with your life, a therapist can help.