Scrubbing away bad memories

If you have a bad or embarrassing memory that keeps rearing its ugly head and making you feel bad, you can get rid of it by turning it into something much more ridiculous. Here’s how.

Short version

Take an annoying or embarrassing memory that keeps popping up. Replay it in your mind, but make it ridiculous. This may help stop it from coming back.

Benefits

  • Stop unpleasant memories from intruding on your day

Description

Many years go, I was in a shoe shop looking for some new footwear. Not seeing anything I liked, I decided to leave. I turned to a double door beside me and I opened it up – only to see a rather average looking warehouse. Apparently, I’d forgotten how I got into this place.

I turned to two members of staff nearby. “Where’s the way out?” I asked. Without saying a word, without taking her eyes off me, one of them slowly pointed to the giant, unmissable doorway beside them.

How I managed not to see this was a mystery to me – it still is. There were only four walls in the store. One of them was made of glass and had a very large opening in it.

“Thanks…” I said, and left, hanging my head in shame.

Now, this incident had no meaning or bearing on my life. I didn’t see those employees ever again, to my knowledge. It was completely trivial.

So why, for many years afterwards, would I suddenly find my brain calling it to mind, seemingly for no reason, and bringing that embarrassment whooshing back into my consciousness at the same time?

I don’t know, but I think most people have experienced this. Not getting lost in a shoe shop – I think that one’s reserved for me. I mean we all have some screw up, regret, embarrassment, or other minor unpleasant event that our brains just love to remind us of.

“Scrubbing” is a technique you can use to deal such unwanted mental intrusions.

How to do it

  1. Recall the memory you want to scrub. Re-live it in the theatre of your mind’s eye.
  2. Rewind the movie back to the beginning. Play it through again, but this time, make it more… ridiculous. In my case, all the shoes could be clown shoes. All the staff were clowns, juggling, hitting themselves in the face with custard pies and so on. Some clowny music is playing on the speakers. When I open the double doors, I don’t see a warehouse, but a full circus performance.
  3. Rewind again, and play your ridiculous version through again. Make it funnier, more ridiculous. Put some celebrities or fictional characters in there.
  4. Rewind and play it through one more time.

Schedule

As and when needed. When the troublesome memory arises, immediately rewind and play the scrubbed version.

Why it works

This exercise gets its name from a computer science concept – memory scrubbing – where the computer goes through the data stored in memory and corrects any errors.

The general concept applies here, but human memory actually works very differently to that of computer. We don’t have permanent “files” in our brain which we can access in read-only mode. To some extent, when we “load up” a memory (that is, when we’re re-living or thinking about a past experience), we are able to influence that memory – we can disrupt it, or even save over it.

By scrubbing the memory in a ridiculous way, we may get to the point where, the next time the memory arises we don’t get the original version – we get the ridiculous one. Then, all being well, we’ll smile at the funny scene, rather than feel the pang of anxiety that the old memory used to deliver.

For older memories, this may take some work. Old memories are well-established in the brain – the neurons are thicker and have many connections to other memories. But this is why you make the memory into a silly one, rather than just imagining it going another, more positive way.

The brain loves novelty, and the more novel (weird) something is, the more likely you are to remember it. In the same way, the more ridiculous your scrubbing, the more likely you are to overwrite the old memory – or at least, provide an enticing alternative that the brain will learn to load up instead of the old one.

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