Mike, a patient of mine, recently confided in me that he was conflicted and a little anxious lately. He told me it was because he had been having a life problem that he didn’t quite know how to handle. He said that his mind was clouded with past memories that were affecting his current decision. I told him not to worry – that this process of recalling memories is actually how your brain helps you learn and make future decisions. Here’s some new research on this subject that I shared with Mike.
Memory Binding Helps You Learn and Decide
In trying to help Mike just go with his brain’s process of helping him solve his current problem, I told him about some interesting news fresh out of the University of Texas that you may be interested in as well. It’s all about how your brain relates new information – from situations, problems, etc – with past experiences to help you make future decisions. It’s called the “memory binding process” and the UT researchers were even able to pinpoint the parts of the brain (the hippocampus) responsible for the process through MRI. It was thought that activating the brain’s innate “memory binding process” can help shape better teaching methods as well as treat certain neurological disorders.
The researchers based their results on showing test subjects a series of paired images made up of different elements. For example, a ball by a river would appear in one image; then a following image would contain the ball, the river and a new element – say, a horse. The viewer would then associate the horse with the previous ball and river image even though they had never associated these elements before. This is how researchers concluded that the human brain retrieves prior memory to create new associations. It’s what allows your brain to reach beyond the exact event you’re experiencing. It helps you make inferences about current information that can shape your future decisions.
In my patient Mike’s case, his current issue, with its own set of new information, stimulated his past, stored associations – some of which Mike judged as good or bad. Those past good/bad associations were helping Mike make inferences about his new situation and whether it was good or bad. Based on this, Mike had to decide what kind of a decision to make.
Other similar research came out of the University of California San Francisco as well. It showed that lab animals (rats) also recall the past to make future decisions and use the same part of their brain – the hippocampus – to do so. The researchers at UCSF concluded that this brain process offers a lot of insight into how past experiences can profoundly impact the way you think and feel. Knowing this memory association process could help understand and treat issues such as post-traumatic stress disorders – a condition aggravated by present situations stimulating disturbing memories. Other earlier research out of Cambridge University found that perhaps ‘erasing’ drug-associated memories could even help stop drug addiction relapses.
Some Other Helpful Tips on Making Decisions
Though recalling memories are useful in helping you make decisions, doing so may also be so emotionally/sentimentally charged that you block out more objective information. Here are more recommendations I gave to Mike:
- Gather information. Arm yourself with enough information from several credible sources that pertains to your situation. This can include written studies as well as talking to people who’ve been in the same situation and how they solved it. For example, another patient of mine conquered her fear of flying on airplanes by researching a lot of data on the safety of air travel. She then talked to co-workers who had flown in airplanes and had no bias towards her decision. Gathering all this information eventually convinced her that flying in airplanes was actually much safer than getting in her car everyday! Objective statistics can predict probable outcome of a future event based on past events and credible opinions can help shape your decision.
- Heed your gut. Before we evolved into today’s human beings, we were born with an innate part of our brain that immediately allowed us to assess a situation for our survival. We still have the function today but don’t pay much attention to it. It’s tied to your “fight or flight” response and actually produces a real, physical “gut reaction”. When you perceive something is wrong, adrenaline is released and causes a tightening of muscles, readying your body to spring into action if it has to. Many people also experience a “knot” in their stomach and even a burning acid feeling or nausea. These physical symptoms occur because the nerves of your intestines (your gut) connect directly into a part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) that coordinates thoughts/actions with goals. This part of your brain actually perceives elements of situations that your mind has not yet put into words as a thought. If you pay attention to these alerts, gut reactions can offer more information to help you make a decision.
Like Mike, you may have some hard decisions and choices to make in your life too. By reviewing past memories, gathering as much information about your situation as you can, and heeding your innate gut reactions, you’re allowing your specifically designed brain functions to help you make decisions and learn in the process.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News
Rats Recall Past to Make Daily Decisions, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120503142424.htm
Memories Serve as Tools For Learning and Decision Making, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120711154223.htm
photo credit: MRTplus