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When We Change Our Thoughts, Our Memories Change

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:27pm


Last week, I stayed with friends over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and found myself reminiscing about my parents a lot, telling uplifting and funny stories about our lives together. My friends found this remarkable; they have known me for years and never heard me say so many nice things about my mother and father. (I haven't heard me do that very much either!)

Apparently, in recent years, there has been a shift in the way I remember life events. In the past, the sad stories crowded out the happy ones. I knew I had an unhappy childhood, that nobody loved me, that there was something wrong with me, that my parents did everything wrong, and that I was scarred for life by broken romances, physical problems, nasty bosses, cult brainwashing, emotional and sexual abuse, the 9-11 terror attacks. These days, I remember a lot more of the "happy dreams"...so much so that, when I'm reminded of my former ways of being and thinking, it's as if I'm experiencing my life as a movie I once saw, or a book I once read, in which there was a character I no longer recognize as myself. There's no denial in it; it's just that I don't see a problem. You could call it "post-traumatic peace order." And that's amazing, because for about 30 years, I was a poster child for PTSD.

Why are upsetting events generally more memorable than happy or neutral ones? I just read this in the December 1, 2007 issue of Bottom Line newsletter:

"Negative emotions, such as fear and sadness, cause increased activity in a part of the brain linked to memories, so bad memories are recalled easily. Positive emotions don't have the same effect. Possible reason: In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to focus on potentially threatening information to protect against future dangers." —Elizabeth Kensinger, PhD., assistant professor, department of psychology, Boston College


A subquestion of Question Three of The Work, "What do you get for holding this belief?"—what is the payoff, or how does believing this thought serve you?—speaks to this phenomenon. The most common answer to this question is, in a word, protection. "I don't have to face the unknown," for example, or "I reject myself before he rejects me," or "I'll be prepared for the worst," or "It motivates me to work hard and avert disaster," or "I shield myself from blame."


Perhaps when we realize that the motive for holding stressful beliefs doesn't eliminate the fear—and therefore, the beliefs don't actually protect us from anything—there's no real reason to cling to them. At this point we can also notice that there was nothing to protect against: in this moment, all is well, unless and until we say differently. The "negative" memory loses its power to direct the course of our relationships and our lives.

We get further reinforcement from the turnarounds, where we provide genuine examples, from our experience, that demonstrate the opposite of our original beliefs. As we continue to inquire, thoughts that used to be habitual don't arise as frequently or with as much "charge."

I'm no neurobiologist, but I'd wager that this process of inquiry somehow overrides or re-circuits the brain's hard-wiring for memory so that there is no need to vigilantly refer to what was previously so upsetting. That is why the memory itself can appear to change.

Case in point: while staffing the School for The Work not long ago, I heard Byron Katie give some specifics about how confused she had been before "getting a clue" in 1986. She said, for example, that if she moved one hand one way, she would have to move the other hand the same way; otherwise she felt unbalanced. She also shared that there was always a song in her head. She mentioned a few more OCD symptoms she'd had, and as I listened to her, I remembered, as if in a dream, a miserable and frightened 43-year-old woman attending her first School for The Work in 2001, who'd had the exact same "quirks" since childhood. Katie was describing herself prior to her "undoing," and she was also describing me, prior to questioning my thoughts. I'd forgotten some of those behaviors and symptoms I used to have.

Later I told her this, and also that I used to have to breathe in rhythm to the songs in my head.

"Oh, sweetheart," she responded, with tears in her eyes, "the breathing thing." She'd had it too...and, like me, she had forgotten.

Lately the "earworm' (repetitive song in the head) has come back to visit; triggered, perhaps, by a few weeks of rehearsing tunes for a show I performed in. As I lie awake at night, waiting for sleep to come, a song is there, or it's not; it's not a problem. I am being breathed; there's no rhythm to it, I'm not doing it. The memory of a song sings itself. I see my mother and father in my mind. They are doing what they did—is it true?—and I notice, as I never did when they were alive, how much I love them.


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