Can you go back and change the past, or are you stuck with what you remember?
That’s the key: what you remember. The fact is, our brains are stuffed with memories, only some of which we retrieve, convincing ourselves we have a true and complete picture of the past when in fact we have a partial, often negative, picture of our history.
Why the emphasis on the negative? Our nervous systems record unpleasant events, including the cues that lead up to them, rapidly. Then they cling as if they were barnacles on a hull. Pleasant things, on the other hand, are stored more slowly and fade more quickly. Why? Because of our need to learn and respond quickly to threatening signals, signals that might threaten our very life.
Even when the cues simply signaled the start of the third grade spelling test, our bodies react as if that were a life-threatening event.
Once we have this negative mind set, we reach out and store more events that fit the template we have set up. We notice those things that confirm our observation that life is hard. One researcher, Paul Meehl, noting our tendency to become more depressed as we aged, called this phenomenon “aversive drift.”
Can you change this? Yes – by taking the time to focus deliberately on pleasant events, especially before bedtime every night. During the day, sniff the roses, hear the birds, respond to the smiles you encounter.
You can actually build up a foundation of good memories that will attract more and more that are similar – and even start recovering pleasant memories from long ago that you haven’t accessed in a long, long time.
The warm encounters I had at my recent alumnae meeting triggered wonderful memories: approaching the campus as the sun rose, gilding the buildings with soft rosy gold, thinking “this is my campus”; exploring the cubby holes and stacks of the old library, finding treasures in bound journals that had nothing to do with what I was supposed to be studying; strolling down a rural lane in summer, surrounded by silence, bees humming in the foliage, only to discover that one of those ivy-covered buildings was a high energy physics lab – all of these memories had lain buried beneath remembrance of the stress of living – and being evaluated – in a highly competitive atmosphere. But that wasn’t all that was happening; lovely things were all around me, and apparently were being recorded in my brain.
It’s not about re-creating the past; instead, you highlight the pleasurable aspects of it, eventually overriding the more unpleasant events.
And if you think of the past as what happened a second ago, you can start consciously to work on building up a warm, confident past now, and watch how it influences those old storage files that reach far back into the past.
It will look like this: Can you change the past?