How do we make a bad memory feel better?

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

This article features research from the following paper:
Samide, R., & Ritchey, M. (2021). Reframing the Past - Role of Memory Processes in Emotion Regulation. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45(5), 848–857.

By Maddie Levenberg, BC '22
Posted on September 14, 2023

Have you ever done something embarrassing and find yourself relieving that moment for days afterwards? You’re not alone, negative and embarrassing memories can be intrusive and persistent, interrupting our everyday thoughts. Our episodic memory is our collective recollection for prior everyday events and experiences. Emotional episodic memories have become an area of interest because of the strong responses that they can evoke upon recall. Triggering an unpleasant memory can lead to unwanted stress or anxiety, warranting a response that attempts to control these feelings. This concept has immense clinical implications and has been observed in psychology practices for decades. In severe and recurring forms, it can be diagnosed as PTSD or another anxiety disorder. As discussed above, smaller scale embarrassing moments can have a similar effect. Research has been focused on how to introduce modifications that will reduce the emotionality associated with a specific episodic memory (Samide & Ritchey, 2020).

One mechanism for studying memory modifications includes testing conditioned fear memories. Conditioned fear memories come from associating an unpleasant stimulus with a neutral stimulus so that subsequent presentation of the neutral stimulus leads to a fear response. Research has indicated that one of the best methods for reducing these learned fear responses is through reactivation and extinction methods. Extinction is the process of presenting the neutral stimulus without the unpleasant one and has been effective in reducing fear response that had previously been learned. While these fear memories have less features compared to our day-to-day episodic memories, they provide foundational information on techniques for reducing memory emotionality.

Given the research findings on conditioned fear memories, one key area of study in episodic memory modification research has been retrospective reappraisal. This involves reactivating a memory and subsequently using reconstructive processes to reduce the negative impact of the memory. Memory reactivation can involve using cues to bring a specific memory to mind. This is the first step in effective memory modifications because it is thought to “re-open” the memory for editing. If a memory is reactivated, new information can be introduced, at which point research suggests that this new information is incorporated into the memory, making it less emotional than before. Oftentimes, thinking of the memory more positively or finding the silver lining can be just as effective as introducing new information. This technique is promising as it provides a way to introduce information to a memory that would ultimately make it less emotional. The next time the memory is retrieved, it will include the updated or positive information with it.

The retrospective reappraisal model has shown what techniques can be useful in reducing emotional responses for a memory. Research has also found that suppressing these emotional responses (also known as memory suppression) can make bad feelings feel worse for many individuals. This suggests that suppressing a negative emotional response to a memory can actually lead to more intrusive recollections of that memory. Memory suppression avoids activation of any specific details and only has partial reactivation of the memory. This is in huge contrast to retrospective reappraisal which reactivates the entire memory and all of the specific details associated with it. One hypothesis for the difference in results of these memory modification techniques is that strong reactivation for memory details leads to reduction in emotionality and promotes adaptive learning techniques in comparison to memory suppression.

While this is a new area of research, initial results suggest that retrospective reappraisal is a productive way to change the emotionality associated with a particular memory. Given the clinical applications, more work will need to be done to understand the specific long-term effects of retrospective reappraisal to determine if this technique could prove useful in reducing negative emotional responses for significant periods of time. In comparison to memory suppression, retrospective reappraisal appears to be a more promising technique for emotional memory modification. Initial results do suggest long-term changes in negative emotionality of episodic memories, which provides a positive outlook towards retrospective reappraisal as a useful memory modification technique.