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Why Your Memory Betrays You

Perhaps today is the best day to start. Can you remember the last 29th day of February?
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Have you ever revisited a place you were once familiar with, only to find your memory of the area has changed? Have you ever reminisced about an event you shared with a friend or relative to find their account of the adventure was different to yours? This happens to us all and neurologists are beginning to find out why.

In the past, it was thought that that our brain stored memories like a filing cabinet - millions of little draws that opened up as needed, depending on the trigger. This trigger could be a question, a song, a photograph or maybe a taste or smell.

Now researchers have discovered that our brains are considerably more complex at storing memories. And what's more, neurologists can potentially erase memories and form new ones.

Proteins in our brains stimulate connections across the brain, which rewire memories every time we access them, making the connection stronger. This can also effect the emotions associated with the memory.

Revisiting memories often trigger emotions, which are amplified because of these new connections that form. This is why you feel nostalgic and can pine for a place you once lived or visited. It's the same reason you fear the dentist or hospital, and it can fuel your arachnophobia. Even though you don't feel the physical pain in your memory, you do recall the emotions associated with it.

This rewiring of the brain also explains why you can suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Every time you revisit the memory of that trauma, your brain makes a stronger connection with it. Just like how you learn lines for a play or speech Off By Heart.

Understanding how our brain stores memories can help scientists develop ways to help people who suffer from PTSD, phobias and panic attacks. It can also help psychologists teach patients to form new memories - happy ones that will take precedent over the traumatic experiences.

You can use this knowledge to help rewire your own brains. It's worth buying a notebook and taking time out of your normal routine to revisit good memories. Then write a list to include:

  • Happiest memories of your life, such as achievements, weddings, holidays, concerts, promotions and graduations, etc.
  • Songs that make you happy or are associated with good memories.
  • Favourite food and drinks, and any such associated memories with them.
  • Sentimental smells.
  • Nostalgic places you've visited or lived.
  • Add photographs of memories from happy days and events.

The purpose of the notebook is to revisit it on the bad days, when you feel overwhelmed or if bad memories are haunting and you can't escape from the negative emotions. Listen to those songs and treat yourself to the foods you enjoy.

Add to the notebook every time you have a good day or something good happens to make you feel that it's a memory worth keeping.

It's easy for memories to betray you because every time you recall those memories, you access the last time your brain remembered them, and the constant rewiring creates a Chinese whispers effect. The more you write down, take photographs and recall the earworms associated with that event, the clearer the memory will remain.

Perhaps today is the best day to start. Can you remember the last 29th day of February?