Do we remember bad times better than good?

2011-09-11 00:00:00
Everyon remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. Why do we remember bad experiences more than good?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ask people where they were when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, and it's a good bet that they'll remember without hesitating. They may even recall specific details about the day, such as exactly what they were doing just before they saw the news reports of the terror attacks. This remarkable ability to conjure up even the smallest details surrounding a tragic or traumatic event is directly related to the intensity of the event itself. In other words, the more emotionally disturbing the experience is to us, the more likely we are to commit it to memory [source: Science Daily]. This is because memory and emotion are inextricably linked in the human brain.

But while people seem to easily remember tragic events and the seemingly insignificant details associated with them, many would be hard-pressed to recall the minutia of their happy times. For example, mothers often have trouble summoning the specifics of their children's birth, but are amazingly accurate in recounting the duration and intensity of the labor process. It begs the question, "Do we remember the bad times better than the good?" Before answering, it's helpful to know a bit about the process of memory formation and the factors that influence it.


Memories and your brain

Each of our experiences stimulates our memory centers in very specific ways. There are multiple brain structures and neuronal pathways involved in memory formation and retrieval, but the essential point for our current question is that memories of emotionally charged experiences -- particularly those that evoke fear -- are strengthened by the activation of the amygdala and other parts of the brain that are central to emotional processing. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since being able to recall fearful events is critical to survival. You'd be in deep trouble for not remembering to be afraid of moose during mating season.

In modern society, very bad memories can be psychologically debilitating. For example, war veterans sometimes experience flashbacks of being in combat zones when they return to civilian life, which can be extremely distressing.


"Strong memories often have an emotional impact that can be more pervasive, even causing physical symptoms, especially when it comes to traumatic events," explains Tanya Clausen, clinical social worker in Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately, some people re-experience the memories of traumatizing events for years after the fact. It's common to experience a biological response when these memories play out, including heart palpitations and shortness of breath."

The good news is that people can also benefit from reliving positive experiences, such as remembering the overall sense of well-being that comes from being deeply happy. This is because good memories can cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure [source: Lang]. Clausen suggests that happy memories can also positively affect our mental health and can be used therapeutically to reduce the symptoms associated with bad memories.

With that in mind, let's turn to the next page to further explore the possibility of reducing the impact of negative memories.


Mastering your memories

Traumatic memories such those of war, can recede with conscious effort and therapy.

Some people seem to have an uncanny ability to downplay negative experiences in their lives and magnify the positive ones. We all have that friend who, when life offers lemons, manages to make lemonade. Are these individuals also remembering the good times more than the bad? If so, is this skill a matter of mind over memory? Or is it that some people are hard-wired with a more pessimistic perspective? According to Clausen, the ability to minimize the negative impact of memories takes a learned and conscious effort. This can happen with the help of a skilled clinician.

There are also self-directed techniques for overcoming the stress associated with bad memories, including the use of relaxation techniques and positive mental imagery [source: Palo Alto Medical Foundation]. For instance, when a bad memory pops up, write down what triggered it -- was it a place, smell or sight? Once you know what it is, remind yourself that the worst is over and you have survived, and use deep breathing techniques to get through it [source: University of Alberta]. Over time, the triggers should affect you less intensely.


Now that we know about the close relationship between memory and emotion, it's possible that with a little effort we all may be able strengthen the memories of our good times simply by making a point of reminiscing about them or by focusing on those experiences when they occur. After all, we're not going to remember things -- good or bad -- if we don't bother paying attention to them the first place.

Lots More Information

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  • Clausen, Tanya. LCSW. Personal correspondence. Sept. 14, 2011
  • Faber, Louise. "Modulation of SK Channel Trafficking by Beta Adrenoceptors Enhances Excitatory Synaptic Transmission and Plasticity in the Amygdala." Journal Neuroscience. 28(43):10803-10813. 22 October 2008.
  • Lang, Susan. "Dopamine Linked to a Personality Trait and Happiness." Cornell Chronicle. (Accessed Sep 28, 2011)
  • Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "How to Cope with Bad Memories and Traumatic Triggers." (Accessed Sept. 28, 2011)
  • Science Daily. "We Remember Bad Times Better Than Good." Aug 28, 2007. (Accessed Sept. 22, 2011)
  • University of Alberta. "Triggers and Flashbacks." (Sept. 28, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "PTSD Symptoms: VA Black Hills Health Care System." (Accessed Sept. 28, 2011)