What is memory for?

All sentient beings remember. Its primary function is that of safety. Memory tells us what is safe and what is a threat. When we are able to remember we are able to survive in safety. When our life goes wrong we can forget what is safe for us. It is then that we are in danger. We know that too much sugar is bad for us but when we go to the cake shop we forget this and we buy them any way. We know when things, people, or situations are bad for us but we conveniently forget it. This is also what happens with a hero in a dangerous situation. The hero runs towards the danger to save other people. Those that remember about danger are running away from it to save themselves.

Over time we lose memory 

In general psychologically we remember things because we are emotionally connected to events, people, things or situations. This means that the connection is relevant or important to us. When things or people cease to be relevant we forget who or what they are. This may seem difficult for the person who we forget, it may seem that they are now not important to us. Often the reason that we forget is overload and we have so much to remember that we forget who people are. 

Do you easily remember people’s names? I have an issue in the NHS. I have covered over 10,000 staff at any one time. They all know my name, there is only one of me, ‘hi Sean’. I look at them and `I can know the face and I can know their life story but their name escapes me. Praise the Lord for the identity badge.

However, sometimes when we lose memory it is because we have structural decay. This can be due to age, life style, illness or trauma. The white matter in the brain is the tissue that connects the grey matter, which is the hardware of the brain. Issues of dementia are when the structure of the brain is breaking down.

How far back can you remember?

What is your first memory? how old were you? Our earliest cognitive memories normally go back to around age 2 to 3 years old. Most of us can remember these early years. Prior to that age our memory is not cognitive it is emotional. We may not be able to remember what happened to us in a logical or visual sense but we can remember what it felt like at that time. This includes anxiety, anger, fear, happiness, security and so on. These memories create the foundation of our emotions and feelings later in life and our ability to attach and detach in our relationships. 

Often when we feel generally anxious, or angry, sad or happy and we say that is just the way that we are. Well it is not. It is simply what we learned to be when we were little, maybe in even this early phase before we could cognitively remember.

As we get older, once the cognitive mind gets going, it get organised. The structural memory of the cognitive mind is like an attic, that is full of boxes of memories. It is a repository of information. Just like a regular attic some people’s are neat and tidy others look like a junk pile. It is just like this inside of our minds.

When people start to cognitively decay the boxes in the attic can get turned over. There is confusion and the contents of the boxes can become mixed up. People may actually say things like “a leopard can’t change its stripes can it?”, or they start to call you the name of your mother, or some unknown person, this is confusion. 

Also some memories can get lost, they are in a box hidden at the back of the attic. This can be lost in the memory system or in some cases become false memory syndrome. Often we do not know whether what we are remembering is real or not, or was it a story that someone told us?.

Therapy and memory

Some therapies are good at releasing trapped or lost memories. Analytical hypnotherapy is the therapy that intervenes in memory most effectively. Aversive hypnotherapy is described as suggestive. What that means the therapy is putting something into a memory box in our attic. For example, if someone smokes cigarettes then perhaps we can include the memory of sweaty socks or burning tyres into the memory box, so that every time they put a cigarette in their mouth they experience that horrible taste in their mouth they are averted from smoking.

Analytical therapy is about taking stuff out of the memory boxes. If people have inappropriate associations. perhaps rice pudding has been included in their sex box. This means that there needs to be rice pudding involved for them to become eroticised, then the therapy is about taking the rice pudding out of the memory box. 

Unwanted memories happen as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks that can become problematical. Such emotional memories happen after trauma, post traumatic stress and if not resolved post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. In this case memory is visual and emotional. Therapy involves desensitisation or rewinding of the problematic memory.

Advertising and propaganda are about aversive and suggestive memory. They seek to change the memories of the population. Just now we are in the throws of an election that involves politicians attempting to get us to relive past memories, this is either nostalgia or fear. Or create future memories of their descriptions of a utopian future. This is hope, expectation and belief.


In older age most people feel the loss of their memory to some extent. When people become demented this can become extreme. However even in dementia people do not lose their memory, we never lose our memory. What we lose is our a utility to recall. For many years I worked in an elderly mentally ill unit. Some of the patients were living in demented spaces for many years, unable to recall who they were, where they were or who anybody else was. To all intense and purpose their memory had been completely destroyed. Yet, in virtually every case, before each patient died they became fully aware of who the were, where they were and they knew all those around them. This could have been for a few days or a few hours before their end. This suggested to me that for each of these people their memory was completely intact. The problem that they had was their inability to recall anything.

We now know with neuropsychology and the neuroplasticity that you can maintain a good memory and a good brain if you look after it and if you service it well. It is the classic if you don’t use it you lose it. We need to exercise our brain through mental activity, tasks and things like reading or better still life long learning – ‘never, never, never, give up’.

The last point is that we are each able to create our future memories. Thoughts become things. When we wake everyday we decide how the day will be. We are creating it in advance. This is forward memory. If we decide that the day will be bad then we are right and it will be. Equally if we decide that the day will be wonderful we are also right. In creating forward memory “thoughts become things”. We have a choice.

You can decide if your life will be good or if your life will be bad and then do the things that let you play that out. 

Take care be happy and think positively about the day ahead…Thoughts become things!

Sean x 

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