Joyfulness seems factory-installed in the young, but can slip away as people get older. Young people easily remember specific times they were happy, and can recall enthusiastic, unconditional love. As we get older, many of us start to ruminate broadly. “I never get a break,” for example. That over-general “tape loop” leads to feeling bad.
Detailed Memories of Happiness
Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories, according an a May 10, 2011 article in the NYTimes Science News. Teaching people to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts may make them more tolerant of negative memories. The Mindfulness Meditation technique he teaches short-circuits the over-generalization habit that people often develop as a way of dampening emotional effects, according to Dr. Hermans.
Over-generality creates a risk factor for PTSD. “Some people tend to ruminate at a very categorical, general level about how unsafe life is or how weak I am, or how guilty I am,” says Richard Bryant. “If I do that habitually, that sets me up for developing PTSD after a trauma.”
“If you’re unhappy and you want to be happy, it’s helpful to have memories that you can navigate to come up with specific solutions,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s like a safety net.”
The formation of detailed memories is impaired by screensucking according to Nicholas Carr in “The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains.” On page 193 he points out that the key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and forming connections between the requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. This is why arousal is important. When you are afraid or very excited, the memory formation is sharper and more likely to become permanent.
The Web is a Technology of Forgetfuless
Because web browsing fills up short term working memory but does not leave time for deep memory formation, Carr says, “The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”
Nobel prize winning biologist Dr. Eric Kandel says, “For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. this is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.”
The influx of competing messages that we receive online overloads our working memory; making it much harder for us to concentrate on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks, to the plasticity of the brain, the more we train our brain to be distracted, the harder it becomes to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our use of the web makes it harder to lock information into our biological memory, and we’re forced to rely more and more on the Internet. It makes us shallower thinkers.
Attentiveness Produces Dopamine
Leaning to think includes learning to exercise some control over how and what you think, over where we focus our attention. The establishment of attention lead the neurons of the cortex to send signals to neurons in the midbrain that produce the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine. The axons of these neurons reach all the way into the hippocampus, where the dopamine jumpstarts the consolidation of explicit memory.
You need dopamine to learn, and learning is pleasurable. Is this why dopamine sensitive people love new learning experiences? Attentiveness and the dopamine it produces help create specific memories that can be accessed with sufficient granularity to ward off depression.
We can choose where our attention goes and where our energy flows. We can practice mindfulness meditation and choose to remember pleasant experiences rather than ruminating on over-general fears.