Yellowed street lights strobe past as the taxi driver speeds down Avenida América, one of Quito’s main thoroughfares. I doze in the back seat, comfortable and full of pizza.
The driver veers right on an unfamiliar street. Through a cloud of thought, I vaguely notice how dark it seemed. Then, the car rolled to a stop.
Three passenger doors opened in unison and shoulders rammed me from both sides (I guess they wanted the window seat?).
Punches rained down on my face, arms, and back as I struggled to escape. The last thing I saw was their dark shirts, then blackness, and the unique sensation of a suffocating headlock.
Something told me I was going to remember this for a long time.
What is a memory, anyway?
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons collectively performing different functions, like processing smell, language, emotion, monitoring vital organ functions, etc.
As we go about our day, different neurons respond to different stimuli from our external and internal environment, cumulatively creating our experience of each moment.
When an experience is deemed important by our brains, the neurons associated with the experience are compiled and connected by the hippocampus to form a memory.
This process is called consolidation. It ensures that groups of neurons representing each aspect of a memory, like sight and sound, are grouped together to correctly represent the original experience.
One area, the amygdala, is particularly influential in the consolidation of memory.
The amygdala serves as the emotional center of the brain. When it detects a dangerous event, which can vary from death threats to deadlines, the amygdala stimulates the production of cortisol, the stress hormone.
While helpful in responding to dangerous situations, cortisol can have detrimental effects on your health and your memory. Namely, cortisol stimulates the production of stronger neural connections during memory consolidation.
Total (Memory) Recall
Since first consolidating a memory requires the hippocampus to connect specific neurons, remembering requires the hippocampus to reactivate those same neurons.
It’s a lot like playing a symphony: the conductor (hippocampus) coordinates the arrangement of musical notes (sensory information) played by a group of musicians (brain regions) using various instruments (neurons).
Just like with a symphony, our brains have difficulty telling the difference between the replay and the original. By reactivating the same neural pathways, our brain “feels” the experience again. Often this feeling includes a physical reaction, and in the case of a stressful experience, that means releasing more cortisol.
As a result, stressful experiences are not only extra sensitive, they form a self-repeating cycle. Simply thinking of something stressful strengthens the memory through repetition, recall, and more cortisol.
I had a feeling I was in the middle of one of these stressful somethings when I suddenly found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
…or was it a headlock and a can of mace?
Another punch landed squarely on my jaw…
BAJATE SUS MANOS HIJO DE P**A (Put your arms down, ya SOB)
Punch punch, ow ow
DIJE BAJATE LAS MANOS (I said put your hands down!)
I guess protectionist instincts aren’t protective when someone hits you for defending yourself. The pummeling stopped when I was finally able to override my panic and put my hands down. The guy to my right, whose armpit I was getting to know, poked his fingers into my eyes to close them, yelling they would kill me if I looked at their faces.
Something plastic jabbed into my eye socket. Shaving cream? Didn’t seem too appropriate.
F-ing Pepper spray. Burning hot liquid hit my eyes like a cayenne volcano, and I was immediately battered with punches for throwing my hands back up to my face (ah, come on!).
Blinded and disoriented, I was scarcely aware of being pulled upright and searched. My wallet and phone were wrenched out of my pockets, my watch off my wrist (not the Casio!), and then began a delightful rendition of “20 Questions:”
DAME EL CÓDIGO! (Give me your PIN code)
Trés trés dos cuatro, I said, goblets of putty-like mucus hanging from my burning nostrils.
Elbow to the face
Código incorrecto! DAME EL P*** CÓDIGO HIJO DE P***! (Incorrect code, gimme the f***ing code, ya SOB)
Punch Punch to my temple
Chuta, no sé que te puedo decir, es 3324. (Crap, I don’t know what to tell you, its 3324)
Punch — jaw
INCORRECTO — QUIERES QUE TE GOLPEO MÁS HIJO DE P***?? (Incorrect, you want me to hit you more?)
From what I gathered, my captors were attempting to access my bank account from my phone, but for some reason, my PIN wasn’t working (Disclaimer: numbers have since been changed, but I did give my new friends the correct code). I offered to get out and visit an ATM on their behalf but got socked for the suggestion. They had no sense of humor.
My face was sore from the beating, and my throat was closing from its encounter with concentrated pepper gas. A panic attack imminent, I tried my best to slow my breathing and avoid thinking the obvious — how the hell am I going to get out of here?
Right Guy Raúl (that’s what I call him) asked me how much I had on my card. “Cómo…ochenta dólares” (about…80 bucks), I replied dryly.
The car went silent.
“Shit.” I heard one of them mutter. I almost laughed. Right Guy Raúl asked me where I was from, what I was doing. I told him, and explained that “volunteer EMT” also translates to “broke.” Even Lefty Lou calmed down after that.
Raúl suddenly grabbed me into another chokehold as the car skidded to a stop. He screamed into my ear that they were going to let me go, but if I said anything to anyone they would find me and kill me. He rubbed another blob of pepper spray into my eyes for added effect and roughly pulled me out of the cab and onto a gravelly road.
The taxi sped away. I groaned and crawled to the rocky shoulder.
I sat up, blindly swiveling my head around as if scanning the horizon for help…and burst out laughing.
I couldn’t believe I was alive.
After 10 minutes I blinked enough spray out of my eyes to make out the outline of a tunnel in front of me and a highway overpass above.
I stumbled up the small hill and practically jumped on the next taxi I saw.
When I got home I was sore, couldn’t see shit, and was the happiest I had been in years.
The Relativity of Memory
My experience left me bereft of money but grateful for my life. After tripping up the stairs to my apartment, I set pen to paper and wrote every detail I could remember (after washing the pepper spray out of my eyes — note: don’t use water).
As I tried to make sense of everything, I could already see that my perspective on a lot of things had shifted. I was full of relief, yet I knew what had happened would change the way I saw the city, my life, and, especially, taxis.
What I didn’t realize was how much that experience would change because of me — how I saw it, not how it happened.
It turns out that memory modification is actually possible.
Dr. Karim Nader showed that during recall the hippocampus reactivates the original nerve groups used in the original experience. To “resolidify” the memory, the hippocampus has to reprocess the whole thing just like before. During this reconsolidation phase, the memory is exposed to potential modification.
You may be asking, “But wait — doesn’t recall enhance memory, like with studying?”
Well, yes. Repetition solidifies memory by strengthening the neural pathways associated with the repeated information. This is one of the reasons why stressful memories stay sharp: since they are more sensitive, they are remembered more often and reinforced as a result.
However, the opposite is also true: learning can disrupt preexisting knowledge. Our brains learn new information by building on top of pre-existing neural connections, and therefore new information can interfere with the old.
“Apparently stable memories may become susceptible to modifications when retrieved due to the process of reconsolidation.” — Dr. Karim Nader
Simply put, the process of reconsolidating a memory leaves the memory open to new updates.
Here are a few ways scientists have taken advantage of memory’s malleability:
In his research, Dr. Nader successfully used pharmaceutical drugs to block reconsolidation of fear emotions to the amygdala of PTSD patients. The results were sustained several weeks after treatment.
Reconsolidation-updating: Tripping-up your Triggers
Other studies have been able to achieve similar results by using behavioral interference methods to add new information to existing memories.
During memory extinction, for example, a subject encounters a cue associated with a fearful event (in the example above, a red collar) triggering the memory and “destabilizing” it. Then the subject is placed in the context of the cue without the reinforcement of the fear-associated response (no angry dog), resulting in a significantly diminished reaction to the stimulus.
Reconsolidation-updating is also useful for getting rid of bad habits. In a study from 2018, smokers were shown a video of other people smoking to trigger memories of smoking behavior. Ten minutes later, part of the group underwent extinction therapy by being exposed to more smoking cues without an available cigarette. The participants who underwent extinction not only responded less to smoking triggers but also smoked less frequently after treatment.
Interference with Competing Information
In lieu of exposure therapy, here is another suggestion: go play Tetris.
A recent study significantly decreased “flashback” frequency in PTSD patients by having them write about a traumatic memory and then play Tetris immediately afterward.
The scientists propose that writing about the experience first destabilizes the memory. Playing the game then interferes with visual brain regions needed to accurately reconsolidate the memory, effectively weakening the visual aspects of the trauma.
“Whenever a patient consciously remembers the content of a flashback, the associated memory trace becomes temporarily unstable. If interference occurs during this time, the memory trace could be weakened, resulting in fewer flashbacks…” — Ruhr-University Bochum
Memory cannot be erased. The nerves and synapses associated with memories are already there, and will not leave just because we want them to.
What these studies show us is that instead of trying to forget, we instead need to remember.
Remember to Forget
Think about how new information has accidentally changed the old in your own life:
- Misplaced contexts: “I swear I saw you at that party!”
- Deja-vu: “Have we met before…?”
- Emotions: after a breakup, the thought of your first date may now trigger painful feelings rather than joy
- Imagination: when you can visualize putting your keys into every nook and cranny in your house but don’t remember they’re in your pocket
We unwittingly modify our memories on a daily basis. So why not use this to our advantage?
As with studying or practicing an instrument, actively learning and repeating information we want to remember could help us change our perspective on our memories and on our lives.
Here are three steps inspired by science to help you prioritize your own mental health:
Step 1: Recall Revision — Awareness of the past
I had pangs of panic in taxis and Ubers for almost a year after my joy ride. As a result, I was distracted and on edge, and that changed the way I spoke with drivers, interacted with my friends, and even discouraged me from leaving the house at all.
Being aware of these and other instances of anxiety has allowed me to recognize how memory affects my present behavior. As such, awareness was the first step to pulling myself to the present in order to do something different.
Where does your mind go when you’re stressed? What activities or thoughts cause anxiety?
Similarly, what are your bad habits? What cycles of thoughts or behaviors are detrimental to your physical, mental, or social health, and from where do they originate?
Asking questions like this allows you to get you to the heart of an issue. Practicing awareness not only has the potential to physically destabilize a memory but also to destabilize its psychological hold on you. Noticing points of weakness gives you the opportunity to consciously learn to do, or think, something different in the present.
Step 2: Interrupt the Past — Be in the Present
The day after my incident I escaped to the mountains with some of my best friends. After a day spent hiking, biking, and chasing llamas, I finally told them what had happened. Unbeknownst to myself at the time, I had just engaged in activities essential to beginning the process of self-healing.
In our shut-in, pandemic world, it’s more important now than ever to build habits of self-healing and preventative mental health. While complex PTSD and anxiety can and should be treated with professional help, there are things that we can all do to interrupt worries by focusing on ourselves now:
- Discuss your story with people you trust, and even try confiding in people you haven’t confided in before. You may be surprised by the support you receive.
- Go outside! Being in nature allows you out of your head and into the world. Plus, sunlight and exercise have been proven to both prevent and nullify depression and anxiety.
- Educate yourself about coping with anxiety, trauma, and PTSD (or write about it)
- Meditate. Here’s a great YouTube meditation to get you started.
- Start a gratitude practice. Writing 3 things you are grateful for 3–5 days a week can help put things in perspective and cultivate your ability to focus on what is good right now. Try out this great advice on gratitude offered by Benjamin Hardy, PhD, or this amazing article on Gratitude Journaling from Jessica Guzik for specific tips.
- Support others. Anxiety is especially high right now as a result of COVID-19. While we do not have the ability to be physically present, we do have the time and resources to check in on our friends and family and cope with the stresses of this new pandemic world together.
What other things can you think of that can engage you with the present? Alternatively, how can you change your present situation to better accommodate what you want to be, rather than what has happened?
Step 3: Update your Perspective
The most important coping mechanism for me was to consistently view the incident as a way to better understand and appreciate my life.
Building the habit of how I remembered changed the message of my story into one of gratitude rather than fear.
As scientists continue to study the uses of reconsolidation-updating, why not try some experiments of your own?
- Where are the red dog collars (or cigarettes, spiders, etc.) in your life?
- How can you reframe these memories to reduce their power over you?
- What have you learned from them, and how have they made you who you are today?
You are the culmination of your experiences. How you let them play out is up to you.
“What you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like — it literally rewires it.” — John Medina
Memories aren’t just an account of the past, they are highly influential in how we see the world and interact with it. Past experience forms the basis of future action, guiding our subconscious through the complexities of life.
In a way, we are our memories. The way we recall a memory changes us — physically, chemically, and psychologically — and improving our dominion of this ever-important database allows us to actively identify and fix problems in our operating system.
While we cannot change what happens to us, we do have an influence over how we view what occurs. Thus, our memories give us a chance to not only remember where we come from, but also determine where we will go.
If you or someone you know have had a traumatic experience, anxiety, or simply identify with anything I have mentioned here, please also try out the following resources: