The Power of your Memories

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 8 November 2015.
By John Abbate.

A billion dollar industry has grown up around “use it or lose it” paranoia about the brain. Unfortunately, the idea that mental exercises or “brain training” games can enhance memory and preserve the mind in good condition lacks scientific foundation. This is despite the discovery that the brain remains remarkably plastic throughout the human lifespan, and that the loss of neuroplasticity leads to cognitive decline.

There is no compelling evidence that “brain training” aids cognition in adults generally; the brain is not a muscle. In fact, there is good evidence to recommend physical exercise—a proven aid to mental agility and longevity—over brain training exercises, as many neuroscientists now do.

Dr Macnab is aware of the current research in this field; it is therefore no surprise that he is more concerned with how to manage memory than with how to improve it.

Why do our memories need managing? “Memories can hold little significance,” said Dr Macnab, “or they can be invested with meaning, with emotion, with moods, with imagination.” Some memories are rich sources of good thoughts and feelings, while others come bundled with negativity. We can become lost and stranded in the past, in our remembrance of ancient setbacks, old angers, resentments and regrets. “Some memories are like suppurating wounds,” said Dr Macnab. “They continue to exude their puss into life.”

“There comes a need to do something about our distressing memories,” said Dr Macnab. He offers several possible avenues for dealing with them:

  1. Change the meaning of the memory
  2. Lessen the emotional loading of the memory
  3. Seek to close off the toxic emotions and behaviours the memory triggers
  4. Identify and practise positive mental management strategies
  5. Set in place memorials to good memories
  6. Reshape your life, drawing on good memories and emotions

Dr Macnab argues that a release from the destructiveness, grief and sadness of our distressing memories is possible. We cannot simply elect to forget our worst moments, but by the attempt to actively manage that side of our mental life we might be able to finish with them: “finish recalling them, finish reinvesting them with more poison, finish revisiting them, finish rehearsing them, finish re-emotionalising them, finish drowning yourself and others in rivers of bad emotion.”

We all carry the marks of past sadness, tragedy and grief. “But imagine placing stones in the river— memorials if you like—stones that will tell you the good days, good events, good memories. They are more valid. The bad memories are past; the good memories are here and they can take you into the future.”

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