The Power of Memory: Recalling The Past to Battle the Present (Part Two) 

Last week, we glimpsed the future by taking a look at research carried out at MIT, highlighting the potential for our memories to combat depression.  

You may be thinking, ‘that last study was great, but mice aren’t humans?’ Well no, they aren’t but many aspects of our brains aren’t so different to that of mice; we actually share a common ancestor (80 million years ago still counts!).

So, this week, we’re going to balance the scales and take a look at a few studies that demonstrate the potential for our memories to combat mental health disorders and promote well-being, focusing on participants without tails and are (in)arguably, less cute.

The Human Studies

As we mentioned earlier in the series, our autobiographical memories play a large role in who we are as individuals. It helps us with our self-identity, our understanding of the world around us and how we will interact with it. It’s also connected with our emotions, which can be re-experienced when a memory is retrieved, allowing us to regulate our emotional states.

This is what one 2019 study found that focused on emotional regulation in older adults, who aren’t able to retrieve their memories as easily as they once could. After inducing negative moods in participants by showing them a disturbing film clip, researchers were able to significantly counteract the participants’ depressed state through use of positive ‘autobiographical stimuli’ (in this case, personal and non-personal photos). 

Recalling positive memories to counteract negative moods and depressive symptoms is also supported by research conducted in 2017 that concluded there was ‘a restorative and protective function’ to recalling positive memories ‘in the face of stress’.

Following the stress-inducing task of submerging and keeping a hand in a bucket of ice, the human participants were asked to recall happy events from their lives. Through brain scanning, it was discovered that recalling these memories had a dampening effect on stress-related hormones called cortisol.

Could memory play a more vital role in our well-being than we think?

Incredibly, our minds are designed to retain our best, most positive memories and downplay (or in some cases, completely erase) our negative ones, in a process psychologists call fading effect bias. On the contrary, it has also been recognised that people who suffer from depression tend to float more towards negative memories (and may recall them as being worse than they may have been). Over time the ability to recall positive memories becomes harder as the mental pathways that allow them to be recalled weaken. 

This is where the potential for technology starts to unfold.

The Power of Memory… and Technology?

Researchers in 2013 studied ‘Technology Mediated Reflection’ (TMR); looking at platforms that store rich digital records of past personal experiences  – like we provide with Iternal – as a way to regulate emotion and promote well-being.

Through both short and long-term testing, the study produced ‘striking results’ that demonstrated measurable improvements in well-being. By recording and reflecting on past events, people could explore emotions without feeling judged by others; some found that expressing their feelings allowed them to stop obsessing over details. Participants were also able to look at experiences and situations from a different angle; simple (and boring) tasks could be viewed as accomplishments.

Participants generally gained insight into their behaviour too, allowing them to identify recurring patterns and habits, noting plans to change unwanted behaviours. One long-term user described ‘profound’ adaptive changes to their behaviour and emotional responses. In reflection, they realised their tendencies to over-stress at work and began to view less successful ventures as necessary steps to bigger achievements.

As we said earlier, evidence suggests that those suffering from depression may recall memories as more negative than they were. Interestingly, the TMR process enabled participants to remember what one actually felt as opposed to what one remembers feeling.

Even recalling negative experiences can have positive outcomes. Psychologist James W. Pennebaker explored this notion with his seminal ‘expressive writing’ paradigm. By   documenting negative or traumatic experiences, practitioners are able to form a coherent narrative that allows those experiencing to be better understood; reducing the emotional intensity and improving well-being. While this can initially cause distress, over time practitioners  are able to turn negative experiences into more positive, triumphant situations by recognising how they overcame difficulties and traumas.

What Does The Future Hold?

And *BREATHE*…  That’s enough psychology for now. It’s also a lot of evidence for the serious potential in our memories to promote and maintain mental and emotional well-being! Though the tampering of neurons and prefrontal cortex may be held off from human trials a little while longer, the studies we’ve looked at today demonstrate the power that is already within our grasps! 

Test it all out for yourself and sign-up for Iternal today. With it’s multimedia capabilities and no-nonsense design, you can truly explore its versatility. Whether you use it to record your most cherished moments, a daily diary or just a place to vent your frustrations; there are countless possibilities.

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