In the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the main character Joel (played by Jim Carrey) finds out that his girlfriend has undergone a procedure to have all her memories of him erased after the two get into an argument and break up. Realizing she no longer knows him and looking for a way to avoid the pain connected with the complex set of memories associated with his past relationship, Joel chooses to get the same procedure in order to erase his memories of her, and with them the pain of the loss and disappointment he feels as a result of the failed relationship. While undergoing the procedure, Joel realizes that not all the memories are sad or painful, and he begins desperately to try to hold on to the few memories he still has of his past love. His attempts are not successful, but he later receives his memories back and works to repair his relationship.
Our lives, like Joel’s, are filled with a mix of experiences that code into memories that are often a combination of: joy, happiness, satisfaction, as well as sadness, pain, frustration, longing and more. What psychologists know of memory is still growing, however, there is an insightful distinction in types of memory that can illuminate how Joel’s project to eliminate all memories of his past love are an attempt to skirt the way we are made, and how our memory and memory reconsolidation actually functions. The distinction comes from two concepts, episodic memory and semantic memory. When most of us recall a memory, we don’t distinguish between the two, we believe they are one in the same but separating them out is a way to remember the past without being stuck in it.
A memory is formed by our sensations from the event being encoded into neural networks in the brain. Certain neurons fire together making new connections in the brain. When we recall the memory, those same pathways connect back together. As these neurons fire together more frequently the easier and faster these pathways run making the thought, or action (in the case of skill development) more likely to continue to happen. Within the neural network we have two types of memory, episodic and semantic.
Episodic memory has to do with the event itself, what happened to you, who was there, when did it happen, etc. the objective facts of the event. Semantic memory is knowledge about facts about the world, people, and ourselves that we derive from the event itself. And this is where therapy can help. What happens for many of us is we experience something like a broken relationship, a traumatic event in childhood, and we not only encode what happened, but also the lessons from the event. These lessons form the basis of future predictions we make about how to navigate the world. So, our character, Joel, didn’t just remember the various dates, arguments, and eventual break up with his girlfriend, he also remembers lessons from the relationship, perhaps that other people are not to be trusted, that he is a failure in love, or that his one true love got away and he can never be happy again. That memory gets encoded and then all throughout his day as goes to work and sees happy couples walking by him, or goes home to an empty apartment at night he is reminded of these semantic memories, these life lessons that he has learned. These lessons encoded in memories bring up pain and lead to things like anxiety, depression and avoidance because these lessons become the basis for future action.
Joel didn’t need to ultimately get rid of his memories to be happy again, he needed a good therapist who could help him. Therapy can work by helping you activate the old memories and the feelings with that encoded prediction or lessons built into it about how you will be treated (because that’s how you’ve been treated in the past) and then actually act in way different than your predictive model has suggested. When we fall into similar patterns but have a different outcome than what we’ve learned to expect we can actually go back and alter the semantic memories of the past. That memory reconsolidates, by giving a response that goes against expectations and past events, the memory adjusts. The episodic memory doesn’t change, what happened to you doesn’t change, but what you learned about it is new. This isn’t a reduction in symptoms as much as a new way to see yourself, others, and the world.
Joel didn’t need to get rid of him memories, he needed to experience or re-experience those past memories in a way that allowed him to encode new, more helpful lessons that give him more possibilities for the future. These possibilities could include “I can love again”, “love is hard but not impossible”, or even “I am lovable”. If we simply try to forget the past, we may do a good job not bringing the episodic memory to light, but we will continue to operate based on those semantic memory lessons, whether we’re conscious of it or not we will act based on those lessons. The way to get unstuck from the past isn’t to forget what happened, it is to relearn that you are more than that event or series of events, that you are worthy of love, that there are good people in the world who can be trusted.