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Memory is Memorable: Coaching and Remembering

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I do want to move beyond this widely accepted version of flashbulb memories. I want to suggest as I did at the start of this essay, that the “flashbulb” can be associated with very positive and very powerful events—whether personal or collective. I propose that positive events can be considered “memorable” and can be tagged for retention—just like the traumatic memories. Like many other people, I have a positive memory of the moment when Neal Armstrong landed on the moon. At a personal level, I remember the birth of my daughter in some detail. I was allowed to hold my then-wife’s hand as she gave birth to Kate (whereas I was kept out in the waiting room several years earlier with the birth of my son). I also remember my own first and second weddings in great deal. I would pose a challenging question: isn’t it just as “adaptive” for us to retain good memories that we can use to sustain ourselves, as it is to retain bad memories that guide us in deciding what we should avoid? Furthermore, we know that the retention of negative memories is not always adaptive. At a personal level, the retention and subsequent reliving of traumatic events can lead to enduring emotional distress and even mental illness. Positive memories, on the hand, have been associated with learned hopefulness and mental health.

While some reconstruction no doubt has occurred (especially over the intervening years) of the Kennedy and moon events, they remain quite vivid—as if I was reliving them once again. An interesting (and important) question to ask at this point concerns how we arrive at a decision to shunt a memory off to the amygdala rather than the hippocampus. What makes an event “memorable” and worthy of being tagged for permanent retention. What is the label that we attach to specific events? I would imagine that the amygdala is first engaged not as a storage bin for memorable experiences, but also a source of immediate appraisal regarding all incoming stimuli.

Elsewhere, I (Bergquist, 2022) have speculated that this appraisal might related to the semantic differential categories identified many years ago by Charles Osgood (1957): is the incoming stimulate: (1) “good” or “bad” regarding its potential impact on me, (2) “strong” or “weak”, and (3) “active” or “passive.” If the incoming stimulus represents some thing or some event that is bad, strong and active, then the amygdala would trigger an alarm that would increase focused attention on this stimulus and preparation of our body for action (shifting from parasympathetic to sympathetic system).

Often the subsequent appraisal reveals that this is not a threatening object (“it is a piece of rope and not a snake”); however, if the stimulus turns out to be a source of real threat and even actual injury (physical or psychological), then the stimulus and following experiences will be stored permanently in the amygdala (that was a real snake and it actually tried to bite me. I had to stomp on it with my foot!”).

If I am correct in my assertion that permanent positive experiences can also be stored in the amygdala, then the “good” (versus “bad”) appraisal might be engaged. The “active” and “strong” categories would probably still apply. Something quite positive has occurred and it is neither accidental (“passive”) nor trivial (“weak”). For example, I vividly recall the moment when I wed a woman that I love (“good”) and am celebrating this wonderful (“strong”) event that I helped to make happen (“active”).

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