Memory, Trauma and Emotional Regulation
Memory can be rewritten or partially erased. Research by Karim Nader shows that when we bring a memory to mind, we inadvertently alter the memory. Here is a way to understand why that might be the case. Let's say you buy something from a store, bring it home, and unpack it. After examining it, you decide to return it to the store. But try as you may, you can't get everything back in the box. You return to the store with the box bulging and a couple of pieces outside the box. Memory is like that. Once you take it out from where it is stored, you can't put it back in without removing or changing something. It is interesting, however, that you can also add something.
But there is an important difference between a memory and an item returned to a store. You are aware the item, as returned, is somewhat altered. But when remembering inadvertently alters a memory, there is no awareness of the alteration.
Some memories are traumatic. If remembering them causes great distress, or if a traumatic memory cannot be kept of out mind, we call this condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There have been two competing ideas in how to treat a person who is stressed by a traumatic memory. One idea is that it is best to leave sleeping dogs lie. In the article Edna Foa of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School says, "There has always been a group that says we could reignite a trauma by asking people to deal with the memory. In this thinking, keeping the memory suppressed was actually better. That was a strong belief in the early era of psychiatry: Put it behind you. Don't deal with it. Go on with your life. The idea behind counseling was to soothe the patient, to find ways to make him as comfortable as possible." The problem with that approach is that - though the original memory may be inhibited - it is still there. more