How often have you remembered only the negative parts of an event or experience, with little recollection of any of the positive things that happened? Over time, these negative memories can take a toll on your mental health—adversely skewing your view of your life. But what if you could retrain yourself to experience events more positively—or at the very least, in a more balanced way? Here are some common selective memory scenarios and strategies to encourage the creation of more positive memories.
The peak-end rule, popularized by psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, is a bias that explains how our memories are influenced by the peak and the end. The “peak” is the most intense moment of an event, while the “end” marks the event’s conclusion. Kahneman observes that the emotions we experience during the “peak” and the “end” tend to heavily skew our overall experience of an event. Say you go to a party and 95% of it is enjoyable—but you have a really embarrassing interaction halfway through. Kahneman’s peak-end rule suggests that this single interaction will colour the rest of the event so that you may remember the whole thing as largely negative.
So what can you do? It’s of course not always possible to control what’s going to happen at an event. But you can try to make sure your “end” is a positive. At a party, you don’t have to leave so early that you miss out on fun, but be aware of how the party’s going, and leave while you’re still having a good time, rather than waiting until it peters out. This can help secure a positive “end” memory.
If something negative happens at the party, use it as a cue to start looking for enjoyable elements, which might be able to register as the “peak” experience instead of the negative one. Pay attention to these positive moments while you’re at the event, because they’ll be harder to remember once you leave. The intensity of a negative is often the easier element to remember.
How often has someone asked you about a trip or experience and you’ve replied, “I can’t remember the details.” We often blame our memory, but the truth is that this inability to recall is usually not a memory problem at all—it’s a concentration issue. The experience isn’t available for you to retrieve because it was never encoded in the first place. Say, for example, you’re in Costa Rica, riding a horse in the rainforest. The tendency, when experiencing something unfamiliar, is to focus on details that aren’t important. You may ask yourself: “Am I doing this right?” or “I thought we were going to see monkeys—why aren’t we seeing any monkeys?” As a result, you may have fewer memories of the experience when it’s over. When the experience is over, you may have fewer memories of it. Physically, you may have been on the horse, but your brain was elsewhere.
So what can you do? Be deliberately mindful in the moment. Take some time to recognize where you are and what you’re doing. Try to pay attention to your senses: What does it smell like? What do you see? Noticing and acknowledging details will help commit the moment to memory and make it easier to recall later. In the example of being on a horse in Costa Rica, try to stop and say to yourself: “I’m on a horse in Costa Rica.” Breathe in the air, look at the sun shining, and really enjoy the moment you’re in, rather than wondering what’s going to happen next. Habits like this will help you remember the experience later and reduce the focus on any negative details that were in your mind but not in the moment.
After an experience, write about it with as much detail and reference to your five senses as possible. In the 1980s, James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, pioneered the study of expressive writing as a way to cope with trauma. The idea is that the more references you have to what you saw, heard, touched, tasted and smelled at the time of an event, as well as your thoughts and emotions, the more you’ll be able to engage with the memory and be able to recall it over time.
So what can you do? Write the details of an experience the way you might read a passage in a novel. Instead of listing what happened, describe the scene, including smells and feelings you had while there. When you re-read that passage, and in general, the experience will be much more prominent in your memory than if you simply wrote out the facts of the day as though it were a shopping list.
Recounting an experience always includes the narrative we create—how we tie together the facts to tell a story. Often, our outlook on an experience is based more on a negative narrative than it is on facts. Say, for example, you leave your wallet in your car overnight, and it gets stolen. Many have the tendency to use the experience as fodder for self-blame and beratement. Some may say that they deserved to have their wallet stolen, and tell themselves they were stupid for ever leaving the wallet in the car in the first place. The wallet being stolen is a fact, while the idea that we deserved it or are stupid is the narrative.
So what can you do? ? Since we can’t change the facts, work to change the narrative to be more fact-based or realistic. A more balanced narrative, for example, could be that someone saw the wallet and decided to steal it. “They made a bad choice, and unfortunately it affected me. Bad things sometimes happen, and although I could be more careful, I can’t always prevent those bad things from happening. It certainly doesn’t make me stupid, as I have tons of evidence to refute that.” Next time something negative happens, consider whether you can recall the situation using a more balanced narrative.
It isn’t always possible to find the positive in experiences. But by retraining ourselves to take advantage of, or counter our biases, be mindful and present, and shift from skewed negative narratives to more balanced recollections, we can boost our overall mental health, and start to collect memories which we’re happy to revisit.
If you’d like to talk about opportunities to support your own mental health, contact a member of Medcan’s mental wellbeing team at firstname.lastname@example.org.