Can You Remember What You Forgot?

My father-in law, Allen P. Bell was a big, stubborn Norwegian. He was honest, fair and he always repaid his loans. He died several years ago, and now we are left with the memories.

Memory researchers will tell us that memories are stored in the part of the brain called the Hippocampus, and brain chemicals affect them. But that’s not the component of memory that is interesting to me. I am interested in three other characteristics of memory.

The first one goes something like this. I’m standing in the kitchen, and I realize I need the checkbook from bedroom before I go to the store. So I walk back to the bedroom to get it, and when I get there, I can’t remember what I’m doing. Why have I come to the bedroom? I waltz around for a few seconds, waiting for the memory to hit me, and when it doesn’t, I do the only thing left I can do. I walk back to the kitchen so I can remember why I went to the bedroom! Or, I’ll find myself standing in front of my desk thinking, “Now what did I come here to get?” Have you ever done this?

The phenomenon is called Context Dependant Memory. It means that we will remember things better if we go back to the context in which they occurred. Have you ever gone back to your old grade school, or your old neighborhood? It’s amazing what can be remembered just by going back to the original context.

The second type of memory is called State Dependant Memory. It’s pretty simple, if something happens while I am in an altered state, I will remember it better if I return to that state. This is one of the main reasons that therapists do not counsel clients that are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. We want to do therapy with the clients in an unaltered state so they can remember what went on during the session when they are in that state.

The third memory state is called Mood Dependent Memory. Being in a mood, like sad, anxious, peaceful or happy triggers other memories of the same mood. I know that when I feel good, I feel really good, like everything is perfect, has always been perfect and always will be perfect. When I feel bad, it is often hard to remember that things had ever been good.

When I was a child, I was surprised by how my Grandmother would cry over what seemed like the slightest little thing. Now I realize she had so many memories, the slightest little thing could trigger them. I saw how it could happen when it happened to me at the funeral service for Allen P. Bell. The minister was remembering the death of his own father, and I was remembering the death of my father, and a boyfriend that was killed when I was 28, and my dog Dusty who loved me without question. The reality of the current loss was triggering memories of my past losses, and I was crying just like my Grandmother.

If being in a sad state can trigger memories of other sad states, then the opposite must also be true. If I can get myself in a happy, or peaceful state, then I should have happy, peaceful memories. Sometimes it is helpful, in times of sorrow to separate the current sadness from the old memories of loss.

In 1838, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote;

This is the truth the poet sings,
That a sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.

Perhaps he was right.

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