Lately, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of cases of suspected or confirmed cognitive decline, the inevitable result of our aging population. While cognitive decline can be demonstrated by a degradation or loss of a number of functions such as learning, language or complex attention skills, the apparent loss of memory is the most common complaint.
But what about the other side of the memory coin, specifically can we remember too much or remember in ways that are unhealthy? How does this work and is there a name for this condition? Let’s delve a little deeper.
A quick word on brain mechanics; the human brain, allows us to store memories in the hippocampus, contained in the medial temporal lobe. Think of this as the hard drive of our memory bank. The frontal cortex of our brain allows us to access those memories. Think of this as the “Open” command much like when we access a stored document on our computer hard drive. These areas of the brain allow not only for memory retrieval but also to cultivate memories that includes pruning, removal and replication, similar to the way a gardener uses these methods to grow and maintain healthy flowers or vegetables. An example of pruning and replication might be one piece of information in our memory erased and replaced and then replicated by more reasonable or useful information. This the mechanism for building a logical mind.
An example of unhealthy memory is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, the inability to forget following a traumatic event creates an imbalance between remembering and forgetting. This results in the chronic and often daily reminders of the trauma manifested by intrusive thoughts, inability to sleep and can be triggered by things like loud noises, a minor annoyance to most but a devastating and regular reminder of the trauma to those with PTSD.
More recently and closer to home for most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatic event. It affords the opportunity to observe how we remember the facts about the virus, the cost on human lives and families around the world and what may be required to overcome the challenges of a pandemic. This is the healthy remembering. The healthy forgetting is the letting go of the fears we have taken on during the last two years. In an essay on the two-year anniversary of the pandemic, the neuroscientist, Dr. Scott Small, writes that some degree of emotional forgetting allows us to live in and move forward from this time (1).
Remembering when and what to forget is an ability most handle well. It is also a reminder to better understand and lend a hand to those who can’t always forget what is best forgotten.