Most of the memorization methods work with memory for several hours or days. This is what we train working with memory palaces and mindmaps. Some of the exercises work with short-term and memory: remembering an image of a paragraph or a series of numbers for a few second, enough to grasp complex concepts and generate nontrivial associations.
The real memory is much more complex and spans for years. Here I address some memory manipulations relevant to the truly long-term memory, such as autobiographic memory. I suggest the readers of this post also read this, this and this articles.
Old memories are unreliable
While we tend to trust old memories more than new understandings, this trust is not deserved. We do not really have to actively revisit strong old memories to keep them alive, yet naturally, we do revisit all memories from time to time. Each time we revisit an old memory we modify it: we do not remember the original memories themselves, instead we remember the last “preview” of these memories. With time, memories change and warp into something very different from the original experience. Quite often, each time we review the old memory we add some elements of self-compassion, generating warm nostalgic experiences. These experiences are very different from what actually happened, yet they are one of the greater pleasures of maturity and experience. We can enjoy these memories without being surprised that other people remember very different stories.
Dealing with negative memories
Fears and negative memories often come from stressful events. It is very natural that we do not want to relive these events, yet the traumatic memories tend to be very strong. Since we do not revisit these memories and infuse them with compassion, the original trauma stays active and affects our current decisions. What can we do to overcome these traumas? The best thing probably would be revisiting the traumatic experiences and reframing them with the help of friends or therapists. This process can happen when we are asleep or under hypnosis, but it can also happen when we are fully awake. Each time we are threatened by the memory, we explain the experience to the person we trust and this person explains how this experience can be reinterpreted into something less traumatic. The support and compassion we get occasionally mixes with the original story and softens the trauma. After several repetitions, we learn to experience the traumatic memories as heroic or life-shaping events, or we get filled with compassion to ourselves during the experience. Either way, we reduce the negative influences of the old experiences on our current lives.
Mixing new and old memories
Most of our memories are associated to some state: our age, our interests, our physical activities when the memories are formed. When new memories deal with the similar subjects as the old memories, we get a complex mixture which is associated with several states. This mix-up may cause several effects:
- Reevaluation of old memories. By mixing ideas of a more mature self with old memories, we make the old memories more mature and deeper. This also means that we may give a weight of experience to very immature memories, which may be an issue. It is best to keep different theme like color for new and old memories to reduce the mix-up.
- Two sets of memories. We may remember two different sets of facts, and remember that one of the facts is right and the other one is wrong and yet not remember which is which. Occasionally a third mnemonic device enables arbitrage between the right and wrong. If we have two conflicting visualizations, we may prefer to use auditory mnemonics for arbitrage.
- Misatribution of the new memory. We may assume that the new memory is older than it really is, assigning it to the old self. Then we may get a false sense of security like nothing has changed over the years. This fallacy does not generate an internal alert, so it is important to be vigilant.
Connecting the unconnected
Memories are stored in some areas in the brain, and may move with years. Occasionally the memories that were very distinguished get mixed. Some strange associations may be created if we raise two very different memories at once or reuse some specific visualizations. If we are asked about “Obama” and “kitchen hammer” at the same time, we may suddenly associate them with each other. A false association may pull additional false details with time. Dual coding is a good way to reduce false associations, since we usually generate the false associations in visual chain and not in auditory chain. Analyzing each event after experiencing it introduces the metacognitive memory which is a natural way to create dual coding.
Our memory is changing with time. Sometimes the changes are good and we may use the changes to improve our wellbeing, other times we need to use specific mnemonic devices to fight this changes.