The human brain is one of the most fascinating and complex systems among God’s creations; and our learning and memory process holds amazing mysteries of its own.
Have you ever been in a crowded mall, inhaled a passing shoppers perfume and it triggered a memory? How about when you hear a song from your high school years—a blast from your past—and your mind instantly takes you back to that moment in time? Perhaps there was a time in your past when you experienced fear or the threat of harm. When you experience a similar feeling, how do you respond?
If the answers to the above questions come easily to you, you are not alone. In a crowded mall, every time I get a whiff of a gardenia fragrance, I immediately think “Mom.” When I hear a song from my high school glory-days, I can easily return to a time when life was all about cheerleading, shopping with my girlfriends, and boys. Then, there are times, when the pain and trauma of my past is triggered, taking me back to a time when I felt out of control, hopeless, and alone.
Our memory—the way we learn and process information—is made up of three essential parts: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding refers to our initial learning of information through experience. The way we maintain and retain information over time is through storage. Our ability to access information when we need it is the result of retrieval (1). As we have lived our lives, everything we have experienced, to some degree, has gone through this process. Our more significant experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly—are those that end up in storage, those which we are able to retrieve with greater frequency.
At Pure Desire, through many of our resources, we stress the significance of dealing with past trauma, as a means of gaining lifelong healing. Well, if you’re like me, the thought of dredging-up past memories, especially painful memories, sounds like a nightmare—a recurring nightmare. I remember telling myself, “I survived it just fine the first time. There’s no need to go back.” However, what I discovered was the opposite of what I expected.
Through my healing journey, through counseling and daily work, I found that my worst memories—those that held my deepest fear, shame and brokenness—were changing. The power they once held over me, often leaving me paralyzed, was diminishing. Here’s why this was happening: each time we retrieve a memory, we recreate it before storing it again.
Research suggests that during the retrieval process, new information from our current environment becomes integrated into the stored memory (2). What is surprising to most people is that retrieved memories rarely provide a complete and exact account of a past experience. Often, they are a combination of reality and otherwise incorrect information; information that was not present at the time the memory was originally created. This is what accounts for memory distortion: changes in the memory of an original experience; the significance of that experience; or even a false recollection of the experience after recurrent episodes of recall or retelling the experience.
Let me give you an example of how this works. When I was in high school, I had a long-term relationship that ended when my boyfriend broke up with me. I was devastated. Not only did I lose my first love and best friend, but he ended the relationship to date someone else. I was heartbroken. This was the first time I ever experienced thinking, “I am not enough.” This thought process propelled me into my first bout with anorexia. I was 16 years old at the time.
As an adult and while in counseling, I revisited this painful experience. During this process, although the feelings that came to the surface were as if I was right there, in the moment, I was able to look at the situation, not as a 16-year-old, broken-hearted girl, but through the perspective and mind of an adult. Every time I retrieved a memory from this time in my life, I added to it; replacing the painful sting that the experience once held with what I know to be true of human behavior—even what I have learned about adolescent boys. I was able to process the experience, not with the emotional part of my brain, but with the rational part of my brain.
I suppose it would be easier if we thought of our memory process, retrieving and storing information, the same way we take a book off the shelf, read it, and putting it back on the shelf (3). However, even with this simple example, reading a book can change our perception of our world, expand our awareness, and leave us forever changed. Perhaps this is how our memory process works after all.
It can be scary to process our past trauma; but when we are willing to take this next step toward healing, there is a powerful change that takes place. Be brave.
The more we retrieve painful memories from our past, over time, the more likely it is that they will lose their power over us. They will no longer hold us captive, paralyzing us from moving forward in our lives. It is through this process that we can begin to renew our minds, to be transformed into the person God has called us to be.
1. Saylor Academy (2016). The Noba Project: Kathleen B. McDermott and Henry L. Roediger’s “Memory (Encoding, Storage, Retrieval).” Retrieved from saylor.org.
2. Bridge, D. & Paller, K. (2012). Neural correlates of reactivation and retrieval-induced distortion. Journal of Neuroscience 32(35), 12144-12151. August 29.
3. Saylor Academy (2016). The Noba Project: Kathleen B. McDermott and Henry L. Roediger’s “Memory (Encoding, Storage, Retrieval).” Retrieved from saylor.org.
Heather is our Neuroscience Professional on staff at Pure Desire. Heather has a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Criminal Behavior. She is also an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice. She is an integral part of our speaking team, and recently co-authored her first book, Digital Natives: Raising an Online Generation.