How Can We Break the Cycle of Focusing on Negative Experiences?

A new study from the department of psychology reveals how we can adapt our negative memories to make them more positive.

Caroline Harting
March 09, 2022

We have all experienced moments that we wish we could forget. However, research shows that humans often remember negative or traumatic experiences over positive ones. This persistent recall of negative memories might be an evolutionary defense mechanism, but it can also lead to psychological impediments, like depression or anxiety. How can we move beyond negative memories? Is it possible to change what we remember?

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, the researchers, Megan Speer, postdoctoral research scientist in the department of psychology, Columbia University; Sandra Ibrahim, department of psychology, Rutgers University; Daniela Schiller, professor of neuroscience and psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Mauricio R. Delgado, professor of psychology, Rutgers University, found that we can adapt our memories and those changes are long-lasting.

Two hundred ninety-seven participants across four studies took part in a series of memory tasks where they were asked to recall positive aspects of a negative memory, either written or verbally, over periods of 24 hours, one week and two months. The researchers observed that through these tasks, the participants were able to shift the focus of their negative experiences to more positive ones. This led to beneficial changes in how these events were remembered, even two months later.

Columbia News caught up with Speer, one of the authors of the study, to learn what inspired her to take on this research, how this research might impact people in real world situations, and what’s next for her cognitive research studies.

Q. What inspired you to take on this research? Do you have any personal connections to memory studies?

A. Since my start as a researcher, I’ve been fascinated by happiness research and how it intersects with autobiographical memory. The present paper builds on some of my past work showing that reminiscing about positive memories can help us cope with acute stress, such as reducing the stress hormone, cortisol.

I also have a personal connection to this. During graduate school, my dad suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and unable to speak. He ultimately passed away a few weeks later. I wished this had never happened, of course. However, I noticed that I started to focus on a silver lining. I was happy that he didn’t have to continue to suffer for an extended period of time after experiencing the stroke and was ultimately in a better place. Over time, I noticed that this new insight would pop into my head when re-visiting this memory. This made me realize that it's possible for this positive reframing to actually reshape our memory in a beneficial way.

Q. Research on the harmful effects of negative memories is not new. Briefly describe what your study showed. How did your study differ from past research?

A. We found that finding positive meaning in past negative memories had a long-lasting impact evidenced in increased positive emotion and increased positive content when remembering those same events in the future. We examined a potential mechanism by which positive meaning finding leads to beneficial changes, by leveraging the memory reconsolidation process that allows for new material to become incorporated into the memory trace. In other words, we found that we can actually change what we remember. This doesn't mean coming up with false memories, but that we can update our memories with new content allowing us to recall more positive aspects of an experience.

The key way that this research differs from past studies is that it tested “cognitive regulation,” which is changing how you think about a situation to change how you feel about it, as a tool for memory updating, beyond its well-known role in modifying our emotions. Previous studies primarily focused images or videos of negative events unrelated to the subject rather than one’s own memories for their real-life events. Studies that did examine memory often examined short timescales (e.g., one hour later), and to our knowledge, no studies had examined changes in content or the neural representation of memory across time after regulation. Thus, we sought to examine this question across multiple timescales (delays of 24 hours, one week and two months) and used diverse methods (emotion, content, and neural patterns of activity) to provide a broader picture of this phenomenon.

Q. Your research illustrated that finding positive meaning from a negative memory leads to enhanced positive emotion. Can you give a real world example of how someone can find positive meaning in a negative experience? 

A. A real-world example: When reflecting on a past break-up with a romantic partner, this primarily evokes negative emotions and perhaps even rumination about the event. However, one way to find positive meaning is to focus on the positive aspects or look for new insight about the event. For instance, you might realize that this break-up inspired you to re-evaluate what traits and characteristics you want in a romantic partner, which may differ from what you previously thought. This new insight might have pushed you to seek out someone who was a better match for you in the future. When remembering this previous break-up in the future, you may now also remember the new positive insight you gained with it, making it less distressing to think about.

Q. What is the significance of finding positive meaning from negative memories? Why is it important?

A. The ability to find positive meaning in past negative events is linked to a host of beneficial outcomes, such as enhanced positive emotion, fewer depression symptoms and faster recovery from stress—each of which helps build resilience to future adversity. Beyond the clear benefit of lifting mood, the experience of positive emotion can also broaden our cognitive perspective, which can lead to better decision-making, enhanced creativity, and adaptive coping. What also makes this strategy important to study is that it’s so ubiquitous in everyday life, as people use it naturally in response to daily stressors, and it’s a key component of cognitive behavioral therapy. Therefore, understanding for whom and under which circumstances positive regulation strategies can adaptively update memory is significant for enhancing psychological wellbeing and informing treatment for mental health disorders, like depression, PTSD, etc.

Q. What are your plans for future follow-up research related to this study? 

A. Although this set of studies examined self-regulation of negative memories, a common way we choose to regulate our emotions in response to stressful events is to seek out other people. Therefore, a key future direction is to examine how negative memories change through conversation with other people, specifically when reaching out to another person for social support. Given that clinical depression is linked to deficits in positive memory recollection and the ability to sustain positive emotions across time, another future direction is extending this paradigm (using self or social regulation of negative memories) to examine emotion-related and memory-updating deficits in mood disorders like depression and anxiety.