The Tremendous Power of Memories

When I graduated from my undergrad program at SUNY Geneseo a friend of mine made a wise, profound comment that has stayed with me throughout the years. He said, “Do you realize that we will never be who we are now, in the place we are now, the place won’t be as it is now, and we will never be in this time or with the same people as everything is here and now, ever again.” This both made me nostalgic for a place and point in my life I hadn’t yet left yet and grieve for the amazing memories I had shared in that space. In all the years that have passed since, I have never forgotten that statement. That sentiment has allowed me to embrace the present and cherish my experiences and those I share them with because it is true, you never have that exact moment again.

Why are memories such a powerful thing? If you think about how often we use the phrase ‘this reminds me of_____”. It could be a scent, an object, a song, scenery, a color, a person, a circumstance, any seemingly innocuous thing can trigger a recall of a past moment. The reaction to a memory can be pleasant, distressful, or a host of other things depending on what emotions are stirred within that memory. For me, the most common reaction I personally have to memory is grief- something reminded me of a person or time that has been lost or I moved on from. I feel grief very deeply. I have done my own work for a good portion of my life to manage that grief to not progress into depression or a deeper level of grief. As I write this, I am headed into a weekend that is a one-year anniversary of a time last year that I miss and is filled with fond memories. Unfortunately, the person I made those memories with has by his choice left my life, and he is not in an emotional or mental place where we could share and reminisce about the wonderful times we had. This brings on that grief, anxiety, and sadness in full force. Knowing what will trigger those emotions and how to work through them is critical. What I have found most effective in these moments is to stop any emotional thoughts in their tracks and say aloud to myself, “I notice I am feeling______. Thank you for my time with this person, it was a time I will continue to cherish and be grateful for.” This reframes those emotions of sadness in your mind to a more positive mindset of gratitude. Every moment we have serves a purpose in our growth and evolution as individuals. Some of the most painful losses are events we have to move through in order to become more ourselves.

“I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn. And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, and we help them in return. Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true, I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you I have been changed for good.”

~Stephen Schwartz

Another friend recently gifted a notion to me that proposes, “whatever you put into the world, comes back three-fold.” This is important because adopting a positive perspective of gratitude, and finding the lesson in the circumstance as opposed to how it negatively impacted you, will change your life for the better. You will be more open to receiving goodness and blessings than if you focused on the negative and let that consume you. Even if the memories you are recalling are not good ones or are distressing, examining it from the perspective of but what did this teach me?, will make a huge difference in how you receive and experience the memories.

What is A Memory?

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘memory’ as:

  1. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
  2. Something remembered from the past, a recollection.

Latin Roots:

memini- (v)- to remember. The word ‘memento’ comes from the imperative form of meminisse, a Latin verb that literally means “to remember.”

In memoriam- in memory of

 rememorārī – to call to mind, to remember (Late Latin)

memento mori- phrase meaning a reminder of mortality, or quite literally ‘remember you must die’.

Did You Know There Are Different Types of Memories?

Episodic or Autobiographical Memories: store the episodes of our life.

Semantic Memories: storage of our knowledge containing all the facts we know.

Episodic and Semantic memories can both be brought to the surface of our consciousness by identifiable triggers.  This can include our physical surroundings as well as the aspects of our mental state, such as thoughts and feelings.

“Mind Pops” are memories that flash in our minds have no identifiable triggers. ‘Mind Pops’ can occur naturally in normal cognitively functioning individuals, but they more frequently occur in individuals with schizophrenia. In the case of a schizophrenic person, these thoughts can be the result of a delusion or a ‘memory’ not part of actual reality, but it is part of that individual’s reality in their mental disorder. For non-schizophrenics, this is a thought that appears in your mind without any connection to what you are currently engaged in. There is a debate about mind pops as they are thought by some to be completely random, and by others to be brought on by a trigger we just cannot consciously identify, or an ‘unconscious trigger’ that we are not aware of. While others argue that a mind pop is information from a prior moment that your brain didn’t store into long term memory in the moment it happened for whatever reason, that thought was just stuck in short term then randomly came into the consciousness and moved elsewhere.

Repression of memories: Sometimes we have an older version of ourselves that has memories from the past associated with it. When we grow, change, and develop a newer version of ourselves, we don’t bring all the facets of the previous versions with us. When there is a reminder of that older self, there will be a recall of memories from the time of that self, which likely the individual will not identify with anymore, so those memories were buried in time. This is a common occurrence in trauma, especially from childhood, where if we experience something distressing, our brain may repress it to protect us or because we don’t have the ability to process or understand what happens. From personal experience, I can tell you when a repressed memory surfaces, it can be very jarring and unsettling.

Memories can be powerful, valuable, profound, and a cherished piece of a life that is gone. Our memories are unique to the individual, and though we can verbally describe the memory, we do not yet have the ability to share the full experience with another person. The point here is that though memories can be painful, uncomfortable, distressing, or positive, it is important to own the past experience, hold dear the ones that are meaningful, learn from the memory of a time past, and continue to make new ones every chance you get.

Memory in Movies, Films, and Books:

Memento (2000): A film about a man with short-term memory loss attempts to track down his wife’s murderer. Requires multiple viewings because each time you will notice different details that you may have missed the viewing prior.

Inception (2010): About a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. The main premise is that dreams can be constructed, manipulated, and shared, a concept which attracts professional “extractors” who work to exploit these dreams to steal ideas from, or plant them into, a subject’s head.

Still Alice (book and movie): by Lisa Genova- A depiction of life with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The book contains a stunningly accurate description of the decline associated with a cognitive disorder, the degradation of memory.

Recursion by Blake Crouch: An NYPD Detective investigates False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived. This is a fictional thriller that is an exploration of memory and operates on the premise that memory makes reality.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: A man finds himself abducted and forced into a reality similar to, but not quite his own. The story is based on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which posits that every possible outcome of every event creates a new universe or world that runs parallel to our own. The main character relies on his memory of elements of his actual reality to find his way back to the correct one, or does he?

The Giver by Lois Lowry: A dystopian novel about a society that is colorless, emotionless, with a focus of sameness. The main character is chosen as a Receiver of Memory, which is a role that requires him to receive the generational memories to safeguard for the society. This is one of my all time favorite books of all time. An incredibly powerful story about how important our memories, emotions, and uniqueness are.

Life is Beautiful (La Vita E Bella): (1997) A father and son are held at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The father makes the experience into an imaginative game to protect his son from the horrors surrounding them. He has his son ‘remember the rules’ of the game and apply the happenings around them to how the game is played. This is a powerful film about a father’s love and sacrifice to keep his son safe in an impossible situation, and also the power of reframing our perception to affect our circumstances.

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