Trauma and memory (6)

To write an effective life story, a writer must be a certain distance from the event – in time, in location, in emotional space.  A novice author can hardly expect to organize material well enough to write a gripping narrative while still suffering from the psychic effects of destruction or violence. Yet, people do manage to write memoirs that describe survival from war, hostage-taking,  and other life-threatening situations.

People who have gone through these events are sometimes so deeply scarred that they cannot recall them; or, if they can, their memories remain too chaotic to write about. On the other hand, people have been known to come through disturbing events with a heightened consciousness and what appear to be accurate, indelible memories.

Many people need psychological help to cope with their memories. Others, who simply want to get beyond them, look for ways to alter or delete them. That possibility, once a science-fiction dream, now seems attainable.

These links look at various aspects of this topic

The surprising link between stress and memory

An animated TED talk illustrating how experience becomes memory and explaining how stress interferes with the process.

Vivid memories remain long after sexual assault

Sexual assault is one of the most violent, and unfortunately common, experiences for women everywhere on earth. This research examines how memories of the experience outlast many other kinds of memories, and remain more vivid as well.

We saw nuns kill children: The ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage

A lengthy investigative report focusing on alleged child sexual abuse at Catholic institutions around the world, with detailed examples from a single orphanage in Vermont. The story touches on repressed memories and the legitimacy of recovered memories, as well as the legal consequences of bringing illegal activities  to light years after they were committed.

Harvard psychology professor discusses how trauma affects memory

Why sexual assault memories stick

Two articles examining the physical and psychological factors that affect memory after a traumatic event.

Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford describes memory science, hippocampus in emotional Senate testimony

Why assault memories are ‘indelible’ for some survivors and other details may be lacking

Two responses to a real-life drama, including a first-hand account of how traumas are imprinted in the brain and explaining why memories of trauma differ from other types of memories.

PEACE OF MIND: Trauma can affect the memory of victims and victimizers

Some observations breaking down the way memory works, and explaining why neither victims nor victimizers emerge from trauma in predictable ways.

Memory loss and brain shrinkage associated with stress: Study

Increased levels of cortisol associated with stress have been found to affect far more health factors than blood pressure, including memory. The consequences of residual high levels are significant.

Impediments to memory (6)

Many people trust their memory implicitly and faithfully rely on it. Others are more skeptical, acknowledging that it might sometimes be undependable. But everybody accepts the fact that many factors affect it. Time and distance make it fade, chemicals in the body can alter it, and a number of psychological quirks make it iffy. We never tell a story in exactly the same way. Spouses invariably argue over the details of experiences they have shared. And, unless we are creatures of fixed habits, we forget what we ate two days ago.

The following links point to some of the things that make memory such an undependable possession.

Is it normal to be so forgetful?

Alzheimer’s and dementia are not the only conditions that cause memory impairment in seniors. This articles examines one of the other possibilities.

Photographs actually impair your memory of an event, rather than support it

We don’t have to remember everything if we park the memory somewhere else, such as in a document or a photo that is easy to find later. This is called cognitive offloading. It is one of the strategies we use to free up our minds. But it is not all a positive phenomenon.  This article explains why.

Cognitive bias cheat sheet

A wide-ranging discussion of some of the factors that keep us from thinking clearly and remembering all the things we want to recall.

Memory and attention are affected by much lower levels of dehydration than previously thought

Strong evidence demonstrating the link between the body and the mind.

Is full-time work bad for our brains?

There are times when life interferes with life. According to this study, memory could be badly affected by our everyday routine.

Western-style diet linked to state-dependent memory inhibition

A cautionary report about research suggesting a link between fast-food cravings and a weak memory.

A boring job really CAN make you brain dead: Lack of stimulation ‘affects memory and concentration later in life’

The trick, here as elsewhere, is to remain aware “in the moment.” People whose minds wander may make good poets or fiction writers, but they rarely write memoirs. If they do, the writing lacks detail because they have not paid attention when it mattered.

Anticipating stress messes up memory—and your day

Even fears and events that will never happen can play with our ability to remember.

Get off the internet: The rest will do your short-term memory good

A reminder that living in neutral is not what it seems. Digesting memories and forgetting are essential to remembering. Even entertaining ourselves in front of a blinking screen can hinder the process.

The unexpected way that anxiety can affect your memory

Worrying about a few things is not usually anything to worry about, but chronic worry might be an exception.

Science around trauma and memory shifting how police respond to victims

Like traditional courtroom practices, traditional police training expects witnesses or participants to remember traumatic events exactly. This is at odds with what happens to people who are shocked by the unexpected.

Therapeutic value of memoir (3)

Few of the effects of memoir are more valuable than the therapeutic benefits. If undiplomatic writings can insult family members and create rifts, honestly and frankly written memoirs can heal old wounds and repair relationships that were in tatters. They can bring comfort to grieving relatives, recovering addicts, and people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Writers and readers alike can benefit from this benefit. Just as composing difficult life stories can be cathartic, reading about them can evoke empathy and hope. These links focus on this aspect of memoir writing.

In the face of death, telling and sharing our story helps us make sense of dying

It’s never too late to get some life stories. If the person who experienced them cannot find the words, somebody else might be able to keep them alive. As Longfellow said, “Life is real ! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal.” The stories of those who are dying or already gone can continue to live on, and to benefit those who tell the stories, whether they from memory or second-hand – to say nothing of the substantial benefit for those who hear the stories.

Scared of math? Here’s one way to fight the fear

Writing as therapy. It works even for people who don’t realize they are curing themselves.

Silken Laumann’s shocking secret

An object lesson in the need for reconciliation with our memories and the healing power of coming to grips with our past. What the mother of this Olympic rower saw as a child in wartime Germany later made life for her own children a living hell. This memoir aims to end the cycle of abuse.

I forgot what? Healing through memories

An examination of a process that will be familiar to many writers who did not know what they were getting themselves into when they began to record, organize, analyze their memories.

Listening for clues to mind’s mysteries

Psychoanalysis can be effective if the patient can tell a story and if the analyst can make sense of it, even if that story is only marginally related to the facts of the past.

Decades later, revisiting a death in the family

An example of how remembering and writing about an event can help us recover from it.

Essay: The (quest)ion of memory

Nobody approaches life stories expecting to recover from trauma or pain, but this writer explains how healing is an inevitable byproduct.

Advice for memoir writers (11)

In a certain sense, most of this web site could fit into this category. We get our inspiration and drive from life and from writers we admire, and we can convert any literary model into advice if we read it properly as a personal message.

Some authors tell you to write every day, some to find a sacred space where you can get away from the world; but the only advice everybody agrees on is that you should write your own truth. All writers find their own way of expressing themselves.

These links elaborate on that advice.

Telling a memoir’s backstory by seesawing in time

We live chronologically, but there may be good reasons to tell your life story in non-chronological order.

Sobsequy: Why the best talent is boring

For the observant writer, negative models can be as instructive as positive ones.  It is possible to improve your craft as much by learning how not to write as by learning how to do it well.

It’s the story of her life

A cautionary example for writers of life stories: Elizabeth Gilbert hints that she may have written enough memoirs. If she thinks enough is enough, putting the past out in public for everybody to see can wear anybody out.

If you’re going to write a memoir, be brave and be honest, says author who will deliver keynote address at Lancaster writing conference

An interview with an author of three memoirs and a book on memoir writing. A quick review of much of the material on this web site.

Remarkable survivor obscured in memoir

A negative writing model . This review focuses on the stylistic shortcomings of a memoir that could have been far more compelling.

Ben Marcus: Writer’s block happens when I’m boring

The first part of this interview seems almost like satire, a writer going on and on about writer’s block, as if he has spent hours at the desk thinking about it when other ideas did not flow. But worried writers can be encouraged by what he says.

Three tips to stay motivated to finish your memoir

Some advice that goes beyond the usual, from a memoirist who has been there.

13 memoirs about writer’s block — and how to beat it

If you think you should be writing,  but you cannot, you could accomplish a great deal for your craft by paying attention to one of these books.

E.B. White’s lesson for debut writers: It’s okay to start small

If we try to model ourselves on the best writers, our skill at first will be disappointing. It’s only by writing lots of material for the wastebasket that we can develop a style and a technique that will be interesting.

How memory works — or doesn’t (7)

Memory is one of the great mysteries of our existence. How do impulses jump across millions of synapses in our brains and allow us to visualize events that happened days or years ago, or recall facts that we learned in the past? And why is that phenomenon more evident in elephants and humans than in goldfish? This is the province of neuroscience, which I largely ignore, or at best admire from a distance.

There are some people with extraordinary memories that are notable either for their amazing skills or for missing something that most people take for granted. There are also many kinds of memory. These are the subject of the links that comprise this part of the web site.

When everything changed: Memory, nostalgia and the tragic turning point

A look at how pop culture perceives and expresses crucial historical moments and how our own memories are altered as a result.

The blessings of memory, even now

It is sometimes painful to remember that we remember, especially when new memories are being formed around us and the people we love are incapable of sharing them.

The uncertain science of memory

A detailed suggestion that materialistic explanations are too simplistic to explain baffling mental phenomena — how, for example, ideas pop up in two widely separated places at the same time, or how we retain memories — and that scientists should be investigating non-materialistic areas.

Take mental ‘snapshots’ to help with memory

Another plea for focus as a way of improving memory.

Video: Neuroscientist Nathan Rose on memory, aging, and the brain

Concerned about the increasing number of seniors in the near future, neuroscientists are working on ways to strengthen the ability of older people to hold onto information so that it is readily available for action when needed.

How staying busy can boost your memory

Like many parts of the body, the brain benefits and develops when it is active. Memory improves in people who remain active later in life. But this article comes with one caveat: Don’t overburden the brain.

Deciphering how memory works in the brain – at the level of individual cells

Researchers are scanning spatial relations in the hippocampus to understand how we put memories together.

Scientists reveal how brain combines multiple memories into new insights

A new theory suggests that the hippocampus builds memories with the help of the entorhinal cortex.

Review: Adventures in memory: The science and secrets of remembering and forgetting by Hilde Ostby and Ylva Ostby, translated by Marianne Lindvalle — the fascinating and disturbing ways we remember

One of the most comprehensive links on this web site,  ostensibly a book review but actually a review of dozens of concepts related to remembering, forgetting, and neuroscience.

False memory (6)

This fascinating topic examines how and why we have memories of events that never took place, and looks at some of the consequences of maintaining, even nourishing, false memories.

How memory occurs in general is a mystery. But once we get past the initial wonder, it is easier to explain selective memory  –  why we remember some of the past but not all of it. We can also understand why we exaggerate some past experiences and ignore others. As life moves on, we put foundations under some of our deepest beliefs with vivid memories of having been tortured as children (though our brothers and sisters have no such memory), or we recall the inspired lessons we learned from teachers who deny they said any such thing.

The topic is related to a few others on this web site, largely because of my interest in the relative irrelevance of truth in memoir. Other pages offer links related to false testimony, fake memoirs, the unreliability of memory,  and forgetting. The following links deal mainly with the inadvertent and almost inevitable slippage in our powers of recall.

All memories are false

Memory is a treasure, but it is fragile, volatile, and vulnerable to time and circumstance. In a sense, it is no more than an illusion of the moment.

How false memories form

In some psychological sense, we are the result of our memories, whether what we remember ever happened or not. But how do we cope when our remembered past is contradicted by the memories of others, or by incontrovertible evidence? How do we proceed when our memories are alleged (or worse, proven) to be false?

Why does the human brain create false memories?

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this article is the startled and defensive reaction of the comments. Personal responses to scientific findings reveal more about the writers than about the facts of the case.

False memory, false descriptions and false denials

Every time we think about a single event in the past, our memory of it changes slightly. That is true whether we are thinking about something we actually saw or about something that was suggested to us. This is one reason why we sometimes remember incidents that never happened, or fabricate details that seem as true as anything we have witnessed.

Demons where once there were none

The power of suggestion is greater than we suspect. It is possible to “remember” experiences we never lived through but were only told about.

Do you suffer from memory blindness?

Trained interrogators can make people doubt their own memories. A session with them would make anybody wonder if any memories are correct.

Why do we have false memories?

Human beings are not machines. We are complex mechanisms, full of paradoxes and contradictions. One of them is that maturity normally involves both increasing how much we remember and increasing our capacity for remembering events that never happened.

Your first memory probably isn’t yours, no matter how real it seems

Some of us think we remember events from before we were two years old. Here are scientific reasons to doubt those memories.

False memory fundamental

Superiority in one kind of memory would not necessarily make a person extraordinary in other kinds of memory, or immune from some common memory flaws.

Photographic memory? Negative

An examination of why memories sometimes fool us, and why it often doesn’t matter.

Collective (cultural, historical) memory (6)

Daniel Boorstin, former US Librarian of Congress, said that history is to a nation what memory is to an individual. Collective memory is the institutionalized memory of groups of people, often – but not always – because of the political agenda of a party or a government.

The main symbols of this kind of memory reside in statues and public monuments. They remind groups about the heroes and anti-heroes who preceded them, and give them a sense of what it means to be a member of the group.

Collective memory has a major effect on individual memory and identity. We have been reminded of this in recent years by controversies over whether statues of historical figures who espoused now-unpopular opinions should continue to stand.  The arguments, the riots, the killings, have been less about the abstract issue of a political agenda than about the identity of individuals within a group.

How to preserve cultural memory in the digital age

We have access to more information than people in any previous age, but we have not developed tools to tell us what is worth remembering. The internet is a mass of undifferentiated data, some of which is more important than others. Even if a pornographic image is as easy to view as a medical journal, nobody would question the relative significance of the two. Culture includes all of our knowledge, but how do we assure the preservation of the best information?

What do we forget when we remember history?

Individually and collectively, we take note of what we consider important when events occur. Later, as we recall what happened, our memories are affected by how we have changed, how our values have changed, by what we have learned, by what has become meaningful in the meantime. This is part of why no two people who share an experience can recall it in exactly the same way.

Opinion: Memory is liberating

The comments at the end of this article give a heated cross-section of views, disparate opinions about how important or necessary it is for nations to remember the wrongs of the past. Many of the sentiments here can also be applied to personal resentments and perceived wrongs.

China’s memory manipulators

Regimes play with cultural memory when it suits their purposes. In a certain sense, personal memory can be similarly manipulated, though  not so consciously.

What have we learned, if anything?

This essay, now ten years old, examines how 21st century Americans no longer remember history as they used to – and how they cannot properly remember war because they never properly knew it in the first place. A fascinating piece about national memory, perhaps even about national denial.

Some things are worth forgetting

Another take on how important it is for nations to sometimes forget what already happened so that they can get on with the business at hand today. This interview with the author is full of gems of insight such as this: “History is the material out of which this collective memory is made. But collective memory, commemoration, is not history. If it is history, it’s so simplified and reduced to be, as I say, to be closer to myth than to history in any usable sense.”

What is lost: Jane Franklin and the great man syndrome

Much of what we know about the people who lived in earlier periods is in the stories of famous men who changed the direction of countries and societies. But what of the other half, the women who raised the children who became famous? We all know their work was never done; but what was their work, and why are their stories so rarely told?

Are your 9/11 memories really your own?

A perfect example of how collective memory can be absorbed by individuals so effectively that they can no longer retain their particular memories.

A race against time to find WWI’s last ‘doughboys’

The memory of historical events disappears in a blink before it becomes idealized and mythologized, and its witnesses have only so many years to tell their stories.

The forbidden traces of memory in Bucharest

Memory of a place is social as well as individual. How we remember where we have been both determines and is determined by the view of others. This ethnographic study takes geographic, social, historical, cultural and individual factors into account.

How memory works — or doesn’t (6)

Scientists, practitioners don’t see eye to eye on repressed memory

Repressed memories remain a contentious issue. Researchers and practitioners disagree about their existence and whether, if they do exist, they can be accurately retrieved.

How authentic are photographic memories?

Like seeing, remembering  is believing – but it sometimes shouldn’t be.

How many of your memories are fake?

A study of people who remember far more than most of us do, leading to information about why we remember what did not happen. An inherent plea for humility when we write life stories.

Not all memories fade with age

Forgetting where we put our keys does not challenge the brain in the same way as forgetting the name of a friend, and trying to remember who wrote The Scarlet Letter is different again — as is remembering events that did not happen and inaccurately recalling somebody you saw committing a crime.

‘Memory is the highest form of thinking, remember that’: rediscovering a lost art at the UK Open Memory Championships

Memory is important, but some people carry one aspect of it to an extreme. The discussion at the end of this article stirs the can of worms lurking in the argument that there is value in pure memory.

Memory lapse? Just shoot her – if she remembers to ask 

What we remember and how we remember are complex mysteries to most of us, as are what we forget and how we forget. We don’t worry as long as our memory works the way we think it should. But why “should”?

Memories, photographs, and the human brain

A brief but lucid analysis using photography to help explain neuroscience.

How to train your brain to remember anything

If you  think it’s important to remember “stuff,” and if you think remembering stuff will help you understand your life, this article might be for you.

The value of remembering ordinary moments

We sometimes mistakenly believe that extraordinary events will have the greatest impression on us. When we think back, we often find ordinary moments standing out in our minds instead.

How to remember the past

Memory is not a construct that takes shape when you attempt to recall an event; it begins when the event happens, and it can be more vivid if from the start you are conscious of remembering.

Forgetting (7)

This web site is interested in forgetting only as it is related to common everyday lapses of memory, such as those that make us forget where we parked the car or left our keys. Unless they are of interest for other reasons, these pages do not present links related to the loss of memory in conditions like dementia. There are dozens of other web sites on that topic.

There are two approaches in the links to this category. One focuses on why and how we forget, and on the possibility that memories might be erased intentionally. This is related to the malleability and unreliability of memory discussed in links elsewhere on this site. The second deals with the value of forgetting, the importance of clearing out the mind.

Limits of memory retrieval allow us to live in the present

As much as we might sometimes wish otherwise, forgetting is a survival mechanism for most of us. It helps us go through daily life and keeps us from losing complete control of the circumstances around us.

To remember, the brain must actively forget

If this research is getting close to the truth, forgetting is even more important that we thought. Instead of being a defect in our memory, it seems to be a necessary part of our mental make-up, the default setting for our brains.

How to erase bad memories

A look at how neuroscience is taking advantage of the way we store, retrieve, and  use memories.

How do people lose their memories?

An overview of the neurological basis of amnesia.

Memory erasure

Forgetting is a natural, even indispensable, part of remembering. We can’t hold everything in our heads, and parts of our brains need to be cleared out if we are to remember the things we will need later.

Memory, forgetting and Propranolol: Should some experiences never be recalled?

Some memories jolt us so much that we want to forget them. According to the article, there’s a drug for that.


Henry Molaison: The incredible story of the man with no memory

An article about the most famous, and most studied, amnesiac of the 20th century, whose conditions resulted from the catastrophic failure of an experimental procedure to cure his epilepsy. This involved removing parts of the brain, including the memory circuits in the temporal lobe, plus the left and right amygdala, but it left the subject in a permanent state of amnesia. Still, it’s amazing to see what he did remember.

Researchers claim memories can be ‘rewritten’

If this becomes widespread, we will be able to consciously get rid of the parts of the past we don’t like.

Scientists target and block a specific memory

It takes time for memories to move from short-term storage in the brain to long-term storage. This research used a drug to intercept a memory before it had time to solidify. Interesting, even frightening, implications for human application.

The persistence and transience of memory

A lengthy, highly technical study contending that the purpose of memory is not to transmit information about the past, but to guide intelligent decision-making. Forgetting is not seen as a failure of memory but one device toward this goal.

Impediments to memory (5)

6 unlikely factors that can scar your memory

There are many lists like this, and they all contain surprises. Even if they did not, they would be worth reading because we can’t remember everything.

No pictures, please: Taking photos may impede memory of museum tour

The hundreds of pictures you take to document daily life may help jog your memory later – but only if you study those pictures. Otherwise, depending too much on technology to collect your experiences can result in less precise memories.

How technology is warping your memory

A look at how memory is affected by our heavy dependence on tech gadgets, and what we can do about it.

Memory’s nasty little trick

Soren Kierkegaard observed that while life can be understood only backward, it must be lived forward. What we perceive is often what we expect, and that influences what we remember.

Why do we forget what we’re doing the minute we enter a room?

This phenomenon has long been a mystery even though it is common and well known. Its cause may be a surprise, if it is ever definitively known.–?instance=home_news_bullets

Forgetting things that happened …

A quirky, deliberately idiosyncratic look at the things that make us forget, especially as we age.^headlines

It’s not just older people who suffer memory loss: Stress and multi-tasking means more under 40s are becoming forgetful

A cautionary report for those of us caught up in the day-to-day.

On topic: You just can’t trust your memory

There’s a well-known experiment that involves a gorilla walking through a room in plain sight and not being seen. If you haven’t yet seen the video about this phenomenon, it’s time you did. It will show you how your attention and perceptions are not what you thought they were. People, as this article points out, see what they expect to see and often remember what they expect to remember.

You’ll never learn!

Multitasking is one of the great buzzwords of our time, a word with positive connotations when it implies not really paying attention to the world. Without focus, experience at best gets shunted off to your subconscious; at worst, it slips away altogether.

Faulty memory finds a new culprit

Long-term memory is a constant reworking of short-term memories, so it makes sense to make our short-term memories as accurate as possible by paying attention to events as they happen.