Rewriting Memories

There’s a story I’ll sometimes tell about how I accidentally chipped off almost half of my younger sister’s front teeth. My two younger sisters and I used to take baths together every night. One night when our mum had drained all the water out, I decided I wanted to slide down the side of the tub and into the basin. I started at the side without the faucet — the side that slopes — and warned my sisters Emily and Natalie to move out the way; only Emily listened to me, hence the partially fake tooth Natalie had from her head banging against the side of our tub. Every single time I tell it, my mum will tell me that there’s some new detail I’ve added, or something I’ve left out since the last time I told it.

Everyone has their own perceptions of how events happened. Our brains record these different events as memories.

Sometimes looking back on memories, the lines are blurred because of what we remember, versus what actually occurred at the time. As time passes, more and more details of our memories get lost. Sometimes, when retelling stories with our friends, we rearrange the order of events or add in extra details that didn’t necessarily happen. This normally leads to a debate among friends and/or family about “what really happened”.

This is an inherent factor among childhood memories. The context of ‘childhood’ in this instance refers to the years from birth to toddlerhood. Of course, our neurons are forming from the moment we are birthed and introduced to stimuli, however we cannot probably recall any specific memories earlier than when we were four or five. The ones we can remember, we probably remember very, very vaguely. That is due to the nature of our brain, which stores such memories in long-term memory. Therefore, though we may remember that certain events happened, it’d be a surprise if anyone could remember these events exactly as they happened and in explicit detail.

Although we can’t always remember exact details accompanying certain past experiences, our brains tend to remember even less information associated with bad memories. Sometimes our brains repress certain memories; our body’s way of coping with an extremely traumatic situation: if we can’t remember it, it can no longer cause us emotional pain. Other times, our brains may twist the situations into ways of making it seem like what happened was okay.

According to an article in Mental Health Daily that I found online, there are specific regions of the brain that are affected or altered which cause these reactions: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is the part of the brain is associated with long-term memory and emotional regulation. The prefrontal cortex uses our working memory — short-term memory — to help with behavioral functions, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and is responsible for a large part of our personality development.

“[If] the hippocampus becomes underactivated” after trauma, the article says it can result, “in poor memory retrieval”. The prefrontal cortex typically becomes overactive following trauma, especially among those, “experiencing retrograde amnesia (loss of memory leading up to a traumatic event)”. Both of these events are due to our nervous system hyperactivating, and thusly, overwhelming our brains, “via the sympathetic nervous system”.

The sympathetic nervous system is the series of interconnected neurons that react to certain outside stimuli by producing adrenaline. This part of the nervous system is also known for the coined phrase ‘fight or flight’, as well as increased sweating, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. For some people, this result of emotional intensity is too overwhelming, which is why the suppression of the said memories occur.

All in all, our brain is a super complex and amazing organ. In fact, it is the most complex. The neural passageways in our brains, all created through billions of neurons, are easily tampered with by outside forces. That being said: Be sure to keep up your emotional health, and remember that for any trauma you endure psychologically, getting outside assistance is the best way to cope.

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