Studies have shown that we remember details of an event in relation to the intensity of the emotion it arouses when it occurs. And, apparently, according to recent research at Boston College, bad memories record more permanently than good ones because during a negative event, there is an increase in brain activity. Things are etched as if in stone to the degree that they frighten or disturb you.
Quite simply, more power is naturally available for the operation of remembering the painful than is available in a happy circumstance, when the bliss of the moment creates a sense of flow. In terms of evolution, this allows us to store more information related to danger, which will come in handy next time we feel threatened. A happy event presents no such concern. Our brains coast. We don’t need to remember good times because they won’t hurt us.
The Buddhist answer to the problem of remembering the good is resolved within the concept of mindfulness. Take particular notice of the details in a situation you want to remember (an event such as your wedding, for example): get conscious of the lighting; smell the flowers; taste the cake; listen to the music; really look at your friends and family members. Do all these things with the intent to remember just how things looked and felt to you at the time, and you will have a better chance of remembering them in the future.
Now, back to the negative. Let’s talk about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example. Everyone old enough to remember the event also remembers where they were when they first learned the news.
I was in our high school biology lab. The announcement came over the loudspeaker in the principal’s clear articulation. I stared at the counter as she spoke, seeing nothing but that counter and hearing nothing but her words.
As I result, I can tell you today that the counters in our biology lab were a deep forest green.
I cannot tell you what color the counters were in the chemistry lab. I cannot tell you the colors of the walls in either lab. But I guarantee those bio lab counters were deep green, a color I associate with the death of JFK. All these years later, I still see flash-like veils of forest green whenever the subject comes up.
When I got home from school on the evening of November 22, 1963, house painters were just wrapping up for the day. Plastic sheets draped appliances and furniture, which was all I could see when I entered the house through the side door. The strong odor of oil-based paint clung to every molecule in the air.
Because of the fact that the kitchen and dining room were out of commission while being painted, for dinner we ate Chinese food out of red and white to-go boxes in stunned silence while watching the television news, as Walter Cronkite updated the information about the death of the president. This was highly irregular in so many ways, but most of all because eating and watching television were never concurrent in our household. Meal time was for conversation. Period.
As a result of this series of events, to this day the smell of oil-based house paint makes me think of—no, it’s not what you’re thinking. It doesn’t make me think of the assassination of JFK.
The smell of oil-based paint makes me think of Chinese food. At our house, in my own small world, the link between that paint and eating Chinese food while watching television trumped the memory value of watching the news of the national tragedy.
It is Chinese food in red and white containers that makes me think of the assassination of JFK. Chinese food and forest green. And these links have remained in place my whole life, unlikely ever to be dislodged.
The Challenger Disaster, 9/11, Katrina—these disasters are hugely significant to the country at large, but they are embedded in the framework of every individual’s personal life experience at the moment they occur. Each of these events, therefore, provides us with a lens through which we can see our national history, but they also give us a way in which we can remember our own lives exactly as they were when the disaster occurred.
The emotional stage for storing the memories I’ve just mentioned, for example, was set by the shock of hearing frightening news: the president of the United States had been murdered. Without that precondition, how else would I remember such an unimportant fact that the day the kitchen was painted we ate Chinese food while watching television?
Think back. You can probably see where you were in great detail when news of any of the above-mentioned events reached you. You know what you were wearing. You know what you were doing. You know which people you were with. You know how you felt at the time.
Can you say the same for a random date you pick out of the past? It seems pain has its gifts.
But we can embed equally intense connections with good memories if we pay as much attention to them while they are unfolding in time as we do inadvertently when our brains make us hyper-alert in the face of evil.
Your mother was right when she admonished you to pay attention. She may not even have realized how right she was.