Memory games

Published in The Simple Things, August 2021 issue. (PFD here.)

You must remember this: How to make better memories 

A rush of memories can overwhelm you, but you have more control over how and what you remember than you might think. Because the brain is constantly changing our memories, your recollections are constantly up for renegotiation.

Some memories seem to live outside of ourselves, waiting for us to stumble upon them. For me, the smell of tar brings back my late grandfather, clear as day in his blue mechanic overalls. A little thing can trigger a memory, causing it to come flooding back: go and put on a song you loved at 17 and wait for the flood of teen feelings – it’s as if all those memories were holed up in that song. 

Every autumn, you might get an urge to buy new stationery, all thanks to years of going back to school at this time of year. This is because reminders, like the leaves turning, cue us to remember everything else associated with that memory: “When we’re forming a memory, we’re incorporating where we are, who we’re with and how we’re feeling,” says Chris Bird, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University of Sussex. 

Memories are often tied to places and people. It seems I keep many of my memories of the year I was 26 stored with my friend Ben, who was around a lot that year so when I see him, it all comes back. There’s a specific bench on the canal in East London where I’m forever breaking up with someone I loved, one of a million moments that seem to live out in the city, waiting for me to stumble across them.

“We think of memories as an event made up of lots of different parts. Any one of those parts can trigger the reconstruction of that whole memory,” says Jack Mellor, professor of neuroscience at the University of Bristol. “The brain is wonderfully flexible, and it allows you to adapt your memories to your current environment,” says Mellor – so passing a restaurant may remind you of the last meal you had there, or if you’re in a different mood, you could recall the fight you had afterwards. 

A memory is stored in nerve cells in the brain, or in the connections between several nerve cells – these cells are then linked to thousands of others. “The way those connections occur, and strengthen and weaken, will determine how you [link] a particular group of experiences together into a memory,” says Mellor. It’s a flexible process: “The brain can change the connections between these components of our memories.” 

This process isn’t as random as it might seem: you can actually make a decision to remember things. “One way to do this is to rehearse the memory by going back over what happened today,” says Bird. But laying down the memory is only half the job – you have to get it out again: “Often, unless something happens to trigger a memory, we won’t remember it.” If I never go to that park where I scaled the fence to look at the stars with a boy I had a crush on, I might never think of it again.

We will never remember everything. The brain really likes variety and tends to gloss over monotony – this is why you don’t remember last month’s breakfast, last year’s commute, or most of lockdown: “If nothing much is happening, at the time it feels like time is moving incredibly slowly,” says Bird. “But looking back, it seems like it went very quickly because there was nothing really to hang onto.” This is also why we might remember a week of holiday better than an entire year: it was full of novelty. So next time you have a slow Sunday, go and do something new because it will be more likely to leave an impression for later. 

We remember what’s important to us. “But often, we don’t realise what exactly is important to us,” says Mellor – chances are you have a strong memory associated with a childhood snack, toy or holiday destination, because it was a big deal at the time. “We may have repressed a memory for many years, and [we might come across] a little trail that brings us back to that memory. This tells us that it actually is really important to us [after all].” This little revelation can be a nice cue to start exploring some of those memories and associated feelings, as it might help us understand our past a bit better and shed some light on why we are the way we are. 

But our memories aren’t as accurate as we think they are. This is good news if you’re feeling tormented by a years-old slight that keeps circling in your mind – it may not actually be entirely correct. But if you think of your memories as a beautiful archive of your life, forever there to relive in perfect accuracy, our brain’s disregard for cold hard facts might be a bit upsetting. 

Asked why this happens – wouldn’t it be better if we remember things correctly? – Mellor laughs: “But it’s not correct anymore, is it?” We’re now at the edge of what memory research can tell us, but this essentially goes back to why we remember anything at all: to help us predict the future. We will notice when a building on our high street has changed, but over time the brain might simply gloss over the past versions – it doesn’t matter anymore. “The brain is basically trying to predict what’s going to happen next so that you can make the best decisions possible,” says Mellor. Keeping a perfect record of the past is often simply not very important. 

The same might actually be true for emotional memories too: when we review our memories we might be changing them a little in the process, as we reconsider to make better sense of things. This plasticity is what helps us move on, and it’s a central component to cognitive behavioural therapy and PTSD treatment. The fact that the connections between the nerves in your brain aren’t set in stone means you can re-associate in a way that serves you better: “This process allows you to think about things in a different way in future,” says Mellor. 

When I went to the pub again for the first time after lockdown, feeling ecstatic at being able to do something so nice and normal after so long, it was at a location I’d primarily associated with having drinks the day I got married. Will my plastic brain update this memory now? “It depends on how much effort you put into continuing to associate that pub with your wedding, or with lockdown ending,” says Bird – it’s in part up to me. “Certainly if you carried on going to the pub regularly it would lose its former association and just become a place you go.” 

While my memories are constantly being updated, I’m not a computer – I’ll still remember things from the past, even as things change those old memories aren’t as important to my daily life anymore. But reassuringly, we’re not doomed to forever watch our past on a cinema reel in our minds. Bird told me that we tend to recall things that are consistent with our moods, so if I’m happy I tend to recall uplifting memories, and vice versa. Knowing that our memories aren’t neutral, but in fact are coloured by our moods, is a powerful tool: next time you’re spiralling into a memory well, remember it’s not necessarily accurate. You’re just jumping between nerve cells in the brain, so if you don’t like the journey, take a step back. There’s always a chance to take another look at the past and try for a better outcome. 

*** How to make good memories ***

Deborah Smith, positive psychologist and author of Grow Your Own Happiness, has some tips for how to make good memories, not just in the moment but also in retrospect. 

  • Take pictures, but not too many. Being in the moment and enjoying it makes better memories than trying to hold onto it so tightly.  
  • Looking at pictures is a powerful way to retrieve memories, but it can also influence you by over-simplifying things. If you’re looking at a photo of a childhood birthday where you’re sitting alone, it could make you feel like you didn’t have friends. Remain open to other possibilities and call someone who was there, and your perception might well change. 
  • Consider a gratitude journal – simply writing down nice things occasionally will slowly start to shift how you think and what you notice. 
  • Rose-tinted glasses are a thing, but so are grey-tinted ones – neither perception is correct. To improve a bad day, remind yourself that your feelings aren’t facts, but something you can negotiate: call a friend, dance it out, make a nice dinner and maybe you can turn it around. 
  • Sometimes you should do something just for the memory! If you’re scared, think about how this will be a great story, and you’ll laugh about it in the years to come.

Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.