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Researchers hope gaining a better understanding how the brain stores memory will eventually help scientists figure out how to block disturbing memories, such as those suffered by people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
By contributor
updated 11/2/2009 8:02:13 AM ET 2009-11-02T13:02:13

Mortifying childhood memories come easily to Candice Broom, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher from Birmingham, Ala.

There was the mean girl in middle school who called her Michael Bolton because of her frizzy hair. The older girl at camp who taunted the shy fifth grader over her not-yet-developed chest. And then there was the throw-up incident.

At age 12, Broom bowed out of gym class due to an upset stomach. Unfortunately, one of her classmates decided she was faking it and lobbed a basketball at her head.

“Immediately, vomit propelled onto the gym floor,” says Broom. “I clamped my hand over my mouth and began to sprint, hoping to find sanctuary before the next round.”

But it was not meant to be. Broom tossed her cookies hither and yon, capturing the attention – and revulsion — of her classmates and earning an “evil-eye” from the school’s janitor.

Not surprisingly, the incident also earned a permanent spot in her brain's private hall of shame. Broom says she thinks of the throw-up incident anytime anyone talks about getting sick or even when she substitute teaches at the local middle school.

Locking in a memory
While most of us have a few humiliating memories tucked away in our heads, we seldom think about why they tend to stick around so long. But a researcher at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center offer insights into why the brain gloms on to certain memories, particularly ones stemming from a single incident.

“We know that in extremely happy or tragic situations, norepinephrine is released in the brain,” says Dr. Ashok Hegde, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy. “If embarrassment is felt deeply, that also releases the chemical. That’s why we remember embarrassing moments, why those memories stick for a very long time. Norepinephrine somehow seems to open the gate for very strong memories.”

In a study recently published in the journal Neuroscience, Hegde and his colleagues looked at how norepinephrine helped female mice remember the scent of their male partners after being exposed to it only once. Their research pinpointed how the neurotransmitter works with other chemicals to create the strong mating memory.

Hegde hopes his research into how the brain stores memory will eventually help scientists figure out how to block disturbing memories, such as those suffered by people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re not talking about wiping your brain or anything like that and we’re probably years away from any kind of treatment,” he says. “But if we can understand the process of how this happens, we can hopefully manipulate the process and selectively block things.”

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Of course, not all bad memories are damaging or even undesirable.

“Some bad memories are good,” says Hegde. “If you burn your hand, you know not to touch the stove again when it’s hot. But that same mechanism can somehow become maladaptive. It sort of gets hijacked and becomes a bad thing, like with PTSD. It hurts the person’s life, it takes over their personality.”

Why can’t I just forget?
Humiliating memories may not cause as much emotional pain as the trauma of war or injury or abuse, but they do tend to get lodged in the brain and fester in a similar manner.

“A lot of times when people have a traumatic event, they go over it again and again,” says Angela Londoño-McConnell, a psychologist from Athens, Ga. “They’re trying to answer the question ‘why?’ — trying to figure out if they could have prevented it. In many ways, we go back over events that are difficult because we’re trying to say, ‘This didn’t feel good and I’m trying to control for whatever variables were there so it won’t happen again.’”

In the case of, say, accidentally throwing up in front of your elementary school classmates, a person might examine what they had for lunch that day or what they were wearing or even where they were standing. 

“It’s our need to control,” says Londoño-McConnell. “A person might have thrown up simply because they were getting sick. It just happened. But it’s very difficult to tell the brain, ‘It just happened.’ So we go over it, trying to figure it out, trying to make sure we won’t be embarrassed again. And we end up never eating fish again because we remember that we threw up after we had fish.”

Mimi Carter, a 43-year-old publicist from Alexandria, Va., says she still cringes whenever she thinks about an incident in her early 20s when she approached teen heartthrob Judd Nelson at a famous Washington, D.C., restaurant.

“I went over and invited him to a party in this horrible fake British accent,” she says. “It was like something out of a B-movie. He just looked at me and slowly dropped his head. Then his agent says mockingly, ‘What a lovely accent you have. Where did you grow up?’”

Carter says she was a bit red-faced at the time, but is completely mortified at the memory now.

McConnell says replaying incidents from their past can often make the event seem larger. But there is a way to stop all the second-guessing and self-flagellation.

“The first thing is awareness, to realize that you’re beating yourself up over something that happened a long time ago,” she says. “The second is to come up with a different script. Instead of thinking negative thoughts, say something positive to yourself. Tell yourself that you did the best that you could with what you had. Forgive yourself and make a choice to think about it differently.”

Can I get a do-over?
Robin Hemley, director of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, actually went back to “re-do” 10 childhood humiliations that had stuck in his craw over the years — reappearing in a school play in an effort to exorcise his memory of a flubbed line in a first-grade, finally screwing up the courage to ask his high school crush to the prom.

“We turn over these memories, we worry them, and they become larger than they should be,” says Hemley, who documented his adventure in “Do-Over! In Which a 48-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments.” “But sometimes, the memory of an event is actually worse than the way other people remembered it. That’s what I found ultimately pretty healing.”

Los Angeles psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Dr. Nancy Irwin says “do-overs” are possible, although they can come with a bit of a risk, such as bombing out as a public speaker even worse than you did in that seventh-grade pep talk.

“You can’t really erase the memory, but you certainly can change your association with it,” she says. “But you want to be smart going into it. You want to focus on the outcome you want, but be prepared if that doesn’t go well.”

Hemley says he realized going in that he might be courting further humiliation, but that the experience was still worth the risk.

“I think going over the things that you think of as failures and reevaluating them has to be healthy,” he says. “Now instead of lingering in my head, they’re just stories.”

Of course, do-overs may not work for everyone.

“Some memories you can’t do anything about,” says a philosophical Candice Broom. “Like that girl at camp with the huge boobs who looked me up and down. You can’t really do-over that. Hers are probably still bigger than mine.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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