How the present colors the past and the past lays the foundation for the present

The biased nature of our memories is a well-discussed phenomenon when and wherever siblings or old friends gather together; the main events of shared experiences often coincide, however, the finer points of remembered experience often differ widely. Why is this? Are memories recorded differently from the start or is there another force at work? The answer is “Yes,” there are at least two forces at work making our memories uniquely ours.

Copyright: Creative Commons Photo Credit:  Toni Verdú CarbóFirstly, the part of the brain that is involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing is the hippocampus. It’s here that new memories are associated with existing memories and content from dominant memories are overlaid onto less dominate, less immediate memories. In this way current events consistently overwrite and rewrite portions of our remembered past updating our recollections with new experiences.

Secondly, the brain works on a sort of trade-off model of memory storage; where the most emotionally impactful content of a memory is allocated a larger part the limited space given over to memory. In this way these two forces rework the remembered past to coexist with current events which helps current events fit into, and make sense with, the experiences of the past.

All well and good for understanding why siblings do not agree on versions of events, but more important to living life is how the mind has adapted to focus on events that dovetail nicely into past memories. For example; say an individual experienced a series of demeaning work environments early on in their career development.  Afterwards, whenever that individual is subjected to negativity or a slight, from a co-worker or superior, that individual’s mind will want to focus on that negativity. In this way, without fore-knowledge of how the brain works, the past can lead one to dwell and possibly put too much emphasis on certain aspects of current experiences.  In this way the past continues to color the present. PTSD is the most oblivious and most severe example of the past intruding on the present.

While every healthy individual has a choice whether to push through and focus on positive events, every healthy individual also has a breaking point, be it a slow drip of little annoyances or a life threatening event. The first step then is knowing the workings of the brain and how one’s thoughts can be refocused or reframed to something more positive. The next would be utilizing the services of a trained counselor for help with tools and techniques for overcoming anything from sibling arguments over shared memories to a persistent negative outlook on life.