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“Remembrance of things past isn’t necessarily the remembrance of things as they were” – M. Proust.

At the heart of insight-oriented psychotherapy is the belief something from the past is mucking up the present and holding you back from going forward. Symptoms signal you to look back in life at what happened and with insight (catharsis) you can go forward less neurotic. [1] This approach is based on the proviso memory is accurate to do this sort of work; something may be suppressed or unconscious but once realized the memories are correct. More and more data shows memory is not that good in fact it can be downright terrible. We tend to forget a lot both good and bad. Even the process of remembering something can alter the memory itself. There is the added trait memories are malleable, altered through persuasion, as seen in ‘false memory’ and ‘gaslighting’. I was recently saw a production of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’: [2]

Judge Brack: Did you not leave the room while he was here?

Hedda Gabler: no.

JB: Think again. Were you not out of the room, even for a moment?

HG: Yes, perhaps, for a moment, out into the hall.

This is unsettling stuff as we want to believe what we remember is true. Our legal system (as illustrated above) rests on our recall of ‘what happened”. We want to believe our memories are objective, not just a “Roshomon’ experience constantly evolving. Folks with dementia are pitied most for having lost their memory viz. who they are. Oh the horror. This is particularly upsetting in precarious times when uncertainty makes us covert certainty even more. The claptrap “Make America great again” touches upon this anxiety/need for a mythical time when ‘life was good not like now’. [3]

I think things would go better and we wouldn’t be so angst-ridden if we altered our expectations of memory. Rather than seeing a faulty or failing memory as an awful loss, consider ‘why’ this happens. Our brains are wired to go forward not backwards. We retain what is important to go on. Once upon a time I knew lots of trigonometry, anatomy, calculus, and how to dance the two-step. No more. I can see this as sad or as something that was important at the time but not now as I need to remember relevant things like my gym lock combination. It’s OK to ask my second cousin once-removed how we are related. If needs be I can relearn things.

Back to counseling for a moment. If a patient identifies something from the past is holding them back by all means we work on it – knowing:

a) their memory of it may change as they work on it.

b) it may not be ‘objective’ but subjective.

c) they may never know the truth of what happened. [4]

Rather than seeing memory as the iCloud, think of it as a cozy room with so much space that discards old things to make room for more useful things. It does throw out things you wanted to keep but in general it keeps the good things and discards the bad ones. It’s not ideal but it is doing its job well enough.

[1] In contrast, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and its subset Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) don’t focus on the past but the present way of thinking and behaving. They argue – and quite successfully too – one doesn’t need to spend time in the past to work on the present.

[2] It ends badly.

[3] This bias goes by a lot of names, such as Rosy retrospection. Egocentric bias is changing a memory to make us look better than we were. (think of Smeagol in “The Lord of the Rings”).

[4] These cases can be tragic. Imagine a patient who vividly remembers they were hurt in childhood but there is no one alive to confirm this. Worse, none alive recall the event as happened or not in the way the patient remembers it. Folks want certainty (often with confession and justice), and it isn’t going to happen.

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September 2022

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