Richard G. Petty, MD

Memory and Anticipation

“Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes.”
–Lucius Annaeus Seneca (a.k.a. Seneca the Younger, Spanish-born Roman Philosopher and Statesman, c.4 B.C.E.-A.D. 65)

We are all aware that memories of powerful and in particular disturbing emotional events – such as an act of violence or the unexpected death of a loved one – are more vivid and deeply imprinted in the brain than mundane recollections of everyday matters. When I was sixteen years old I was in a head-on car crash: I can still recall the number of the license plates of the car that was driving down the wrong side of the road as it barreled into us. But particularly positive emotions are also remembered in far more vivid detail, and those memories are less likely to be lost. This all makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective: we need to be able to remember things that carry a strong emotional charge.

Colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have found that the mere anticipation of a fearful situation can activate two memory-forming regions of the brain: even before the event has occurred.

The investigators used functional MRI scans with 40 healthy participants who viewed aversive or neutral pictures preceded by predictive warning cues. Previous research reported sex differences in the way in which memory and emotion interact: in women, memory associations were found with a region called the left amygdala. But the association was with the right amygdala in men. This new study refines these findings: they were confined to the ventral amygdala during picture viewing and delayed memory.

Both men and women who had previously been given an indication that gruesome pictures were going to be shown were more likely to remember them.

What this means is that the act of anticipation may play an important role in whether the memory of a tough experience remains fresh and vivid. This makes sense based on our own experiences of events: do you remember the fear associated with a visit to the dentist that built and built before you got there? That anticipation can itself modify the memories of an event.

The findings are published in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They have important implications for the treatment of some psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety that are often characterized by flashbacks and intrusive memories of upsetting events

We have long known that our memories are not like some video recording forever preserved within our neurons. Some memories are false, many change over time and others lose their emotional charge. It is possible to implant false memories in people, and by re-writing our own life stories we can change the narrative of our lives and how we react to life events.

Samuel Johnson once said that, “The true art of memory is the art of attention.”

I’m quite sure that he is correct, and this research proves it. I’ve always been blessed – or cursed – with a prodigious memory, to the extent of being able to remember the lab values on every patient that I ever saw during my clinical years, and when I was younger being able to read pages of a textbook from memory. I’m quite convinced that my memory is no better than anyone else’s: I’m just a little better at using it.

The trick to using my memory was discovering at an early age that I could remember virtually anything if I really focused my attention on it. So I would focus on the book to the exclusion of everything else for a minute or two. Rest for a minute and then do it again. To this day, that is the best technique that I know for laying down long-term memory. My father also had this faculty, and when I was a youngster he would tell me not to write down things like shopping lists or to construct “To do” lists. He told me that, “if you really have to remember things you will. And if you’re not interested in something you don’t need a “to do” list.”

I only use lists if I have to do something tedious. This is a good test for you. If something that you are doing really engages your attention it is likely one of your core desires, and there is no need to be writing down a list of things to do. If it does not, and you have to write everything down, it’s probably not a core desire. You may still need to write down an action plan, but that’s to get your creative juices flowing, not to stimulate your memory.

I have developed quite a number of techniques for improving memory and concentration. Some are home grown, others modified from methods and techniques that others have taught me. I’ve been collecting and testing them for years. I’m doing a lot of flying this week, so I shall have the time to be put some of them together into a free report. I shall let you know when it’s ready and if you ask, I shall send you a copy.

There is one important reason for writing down thoughts once you have done something, and that is to help them be part of your legacy. That’s a topic to which we are going to return many times in the next few weeks.

“What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”
–Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (English Statesman, Novelist and, in 1868 and from 1874-1880, British Prime Minister, 1804-1881)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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