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  • Writer's pictureNora Walsh Kerr

What Makes a Memory?

What makes a memory? I think about this question a lot while helping people capture their life stories. Some clients seem to excel at it, recalling memories from childhood that have probably been told to family members countless times before. They have already done the work of recalling, making sense of it, and then sharing it. Others really struggle, because to them, this is new territory. I love to be there to help them through the process of not only remembering their experiences, but also making connections between their past and their present behavior.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Disney/Pixar's Inside Out is one of my favorite cartoons. The quest of different human emotions personified (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) to save core memories from disappearing was right up my alley! How or when do ordinary experiences become those core memories that, when strung together, give meaning to life? What impact do our emotions have on how our brain stores memories? It's not as simple as sad and unpleasant ones go in the back, while joyful ones are kept at the front. Some hugely important experiences, like the first 4 years of most of our lives and imaginary friends (R.I.P. Bing Bong) are forgotten into the oblivion.

Whether for your own purposes, or if working with a loved one to recall their stories, here are some ways to bring more of those moments to the forefront--the good, the bad, the ugly, but all of it true and beautiful.

1. Reflect on past life experiences. This sounds like an obvious one, but in order to remember something from the past, you have to spend the time actively trying to revisit it! So many of us go through life distracted or projecting ahead about what is to come. How often do we stop and think about our past? Sometimes we try, but give up too easily if things aren't recalled quickly. Rushing this process doesn't help. Like carefully reviewing vs. cramming for a test, more memories will come back if you give yourself the time to reflect and think.

2. Revisit old photos - Whether you're creating new memories or trying to remember the old, pictures help to activate memories. Asking or thinking about the people in the photos may bring good stories but they also can lead to tangential memories of the time and place that the photo was taken. Photos can also elicit an emotional response, that with careful digging, reveal stories and bring greater meaning to our experiences.

3. Share it with someone. Have you ever woken up from a vivid dream that you couldn't recall later? If you share that dream with someone (or jot it down in a journal) right after experiencing it, it involves other parts of the brain that help move the data from short-term/working memory to more long-term storage. Once the memory is there, it can more easily be retrieved again. Retelling life stories, even awkwardly and with many bumps along the way, helps to improve our memory and make meaning of our lives.

Have you had the experience of remembering something long forgotten or been present with a loved one who had this experience? I would love to hear about it. Until then, here's to remembering what we want to and forgetting the rest! Happy summer!


Harvard Univerity - Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning

NPR Health


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