How to Fuel Positive Change by Leveraging Episodic Memory

Episodic memorySome researchers believe that our memory evolved for us not only to remember, but also to imagine all that might be (Young, 2019).

Episodic memory is a powerful mechanism where body meets mind, allowing us to revisit past moments in the present (Williams et al., 2022).

When we reflect on our highs and lows, they influence how we think, feel, and behave and become valuable tools for our wellbeing while guiding our current decisions and shaping our future (Williams et al., 2022).

This article explores episodic memory and how it can be combined with positive psychology to create a flourishing life.

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What Is Episodic Memory & How Does It Work?

Many argue that the most important distinction in long-term memory is between declarative and non-declarative memory (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Declarative versus non-declarative

Declarative memory is explicit, involving a “conscious recollection of events and facts,” not all of which can be described verbally (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 263).

For example, declarative memory may include both “chien is the French word for ‘dog,’” and “I visited Spain last year on vacation.”

Non-declarative, or implicit memory, is sometimes referred to as procedural memory and doesn’t involve conscious reflection. It is usually visible in our behavior, such as knowing how to swim or ride a bike (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Episodic memory

Declarative memory includes remembering specific events, such as our trip to Spain last year (episodic memory) and that Barcelona is the capital of Spain (semantic memory; Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

“Episodic memories are powerful in their ability to transport us back in time, allowing us to reexperience and reflect on past moments” (Williams et al., 2022, p. 869).

We use episodic memory to recall past events we have experienced, but it is not like fast-forwarding to a specific moment in a TV show. Memory researchers identify it as constructive rather than reproductive. This means that we often reproduce memories in a distorted form (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

“Episodic memories can no longer be seen as the re-activation of stored experiences but are the product of an intense construction process based on a memory trace” (Dings & Newen, 2021, p. 87).

Similarly, “imagining future events involves the same (or similar) processes to those involved in remembering past events” (Eysenck & Keane, 2015, p. 275). Either way, we fill the gaps with a best guess.

A psychological definition

Recalling past events using our episodic memory is autobiographical in nature. According to research by psychologists and cognitive scientists, we produce a subjective recollection of personal events that is vital to our sense of self, constructing a narrative of our lives (Williams et al., 2022).

We may not be capable of recalling all the details of an experience, yet we often remember that the event occurred, particularly if it was emotionally charged. While a mundane moment, such as what we made for dinner on the first Wednesday in June last year, is forgotten, walking our child down the aisle is firmly imprinted on our minds and readily available (Williams et al., 2022).

Episodic memory is, therefore, vital to understanding who we are. Not only that, but recent and ongoing research suggests that by understanding our past, we can maintain or regain our mental wellbeing or avoid and recover from mental trauma and illness (Robson, 2019).

Our memories are also shaped by which aspects of our experiences we focus on.

In our article What Is the Peak–End Rule? we explore how our interpretation and recollection of an event or experience is heavily influenced by what happened at its peak intensity and its end (Alaybek et al., 2022).

Whatever memories we have, they don’t need to define us. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning that they are changeable. This fascinating video by Lara Boyd teaches us how to shape the brain we want.

After watching this, your brain will not be the same - Lara Boyd

Episodic vs. Semantic vs. Procedural Memory

The distinction between episodic, semantic, and procedural memory is crucial to understanding our cognition.

Procedural, or non-declarative, memory refers to the knowledge of how to perform a task or skill. For a young child, it might be learning to brush their teeth or tie shoelaces (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

On the other hand, semantic memory is organized and relates to our generalized knowledge of the world. For example, the names of the US states, the titles of five Shakespeare plays, or the rules of baseball. Such knowledge is often conceptual and stored in hierarchies. We instantly recognize an armchair in a shop as an item of furniture (higher up the conceptual hierarchy) and also a chair (lower down).

Like semantic memory, episodic memory is declarative yet is stored in a different (though possibly adjacent) memory system that holds long-term memories of events. Perhaps we remember our first day at school or a surprise birthday party, though the details may be unclear or inaccurate.

People who have amnesia sometimes have very bad declarative (episodic and semantic) memory but can remember how to do things, which suggests that the hippocampus (or its underlying cortices) has been damaged (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

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5 Episodic Memory Types & Examples

Not all episodic memories are the same. Understanding the subtle differences may influence how therapists and other mental health professionals explore and interpret their clients’ pasts (Moscovitch et al., 2005; Robson, 2019).

While there are multiple definitions, episodic memory is sometimes differentiated as follows (Moscovitch et al., 2005; Rich, 2011):

  • Autobiographical episodes
    These are specific events, possibly linked to one particular time or stage in an individual’s life. Revisiting the memory is “effectively allowing one to travel mentally back in time” (Moscovitch et al., 2005, p. 39).

We might recall our first day at high school, a first kiss, or being let go by an employer.

  • Familiarity-based memory
    It refers to the sense that something is familiar without having a specific memory. They combine the attributes of episodic and semantic memories.

For example, a particular smell or sound reminds us of autumn evenings without us recalling a particular event.

  • Spatial memory
    This specific form of autobiographical memory provides spatial context to the recollection. It could be the event’s layout, the important landmarks, or the route taken.

We might remember where the cookies were kept in our grandparents’ kitchen or how we reached the swing at the bottom of our family garden.

  • Nonspatial memory
    Some memories appear outside of a location or context. The event is remembered but not where it happened, particularly if the location is not emotionally charged.

For example, we may recall receiving an achievement award in a first job. It most likely took place in an office, but we don’t remember the surroundings or even who was there.

  • Remote memory
    We all carry memories from our early years, some of which may be decades old; they can be episodic (autobiographical) or semantic.

We may vividly imagine riding our bike for the first time without training wheels.

Episodic Memory & Personal Identity

Personal identity“Autobiographical memories define us; they are who we are” (Weir, 2019, p. 108).

We cannot remember specific events before 2 or 3 years old, possibly due to immature neural pathways from the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. After that, our memories of experiences profoundly affect our sense of identity (Weir, 2019).

As we age, our identities and memories become intimately connected, shaping our opinions of ourselves. At the same time, our personality also influences what we remember. If we think we are funny, we may remember more times when we were humorous, even if our recollection is not 100% correct (Weir, 2019).

Others’ episodic memory also shapes our personal identity. When our parents share anecdotes of when we were young, they often become “ours,” influencing how we view our shared past and who we think we are (Weir, 2019).

The Role of Episodic Memories in Wellbeing

Memories act as a kind of ballast that holds us steady during times of stress.

Robson, 2019, p. 111

Recent research has begun to uncover the vital nature of our autobiographical memories and their impact on our mental wellbeing. New ways of treating mental illness, such as depression, may surface that target the underlying memory, mainly when recall is vague and lacking in detail (Robson, 2019).

“Life’s highs and lows are disproportionately represented in memory, and when they are retrieved, they often impact our current mood and thoughts and influence various forms of behavior” (Williams et al., 2022, p. 869).

Sadly, negative episodic memories are typically more durable, accessible, and vivid than positive ones. Such bias may result from the physiological changes that occur during and immediately after an emotionally upsetting experience or from the fact that negative memories are prioritized at retrieval (Williams et al., 2022).

Thought-stopping techniques can be helpful in blocking or limiting the recall of stressful thoughts or negative episodic memories (Hardy & Oliver, 2014). Read our article 18 Effective Thought-Stopping Techniques (& 10 PDFs) to find out more.

How to Enhance Memory With Positive Psychology

Enhance memoryWhile it is unclear exactly why, people focus more on negative emotions and memories than positive ones. Such a negativity bias can damage our mental wellbeing (Williams et al., 2022).

However, it is possible to enhance our memory experiences with techniques taken from positive psychology.

Martin Seligman (2011), one of the founders and central proponents of positive psychology, recognized in the late 1990s the importance of a positive focus. His research identified the “Three Good Things” (or “Three Blessings”) exercise as a valuable intervention, encouraging individuals to spend time at the end of each day focusing on three positive memories, including events they were grateful for, that happened that day.

It may be a smile from a bank clerk, a morning walk in the early sun, or a compliment received from a work colleague.

Such positivity does not ignore the negatives in our lives or avoid uncomfortable memories, but involves a realignment, encouraging ourselves to attend to more positives, at least for some of the day (Fredrickson, 2010).

Another positive psychology approach for enhancing our approach to and handling of episodic memory is to revisit past events that proved challenging. Benefit finding involves digging deep to find “the positive effects that result from a traumatic event” (Helgeson et al., 2006, p. 797).

In therapy, the client will often begin by talking about the difficult memory and then reflect on the following mental health questions to identify the positive aspects of the experience:

How has the experience changed you?
What has the experience taught you?
How has the experience made you better equipped to meet similar challenges in the future?
How do you feel this experience has made you grow as a person?

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Reshaping & Reinterpreting Episodic Memories

The latest research from neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science suggests that we are not simply reactivating stored memories when we remember. Instead, we are engaging in a construction process, the result of which is how we think about past events (Dings & Newen, 2021).

The good news is that we have a degree of involvement and control in that process.

It is possible to reshape and reinterpret episodic memories, including difficult ones, through the influence of the narrative self. As such, “the narrative self may change their narrative meaning” (Dings & Newen, 2021, p. 104).

Our narrative self refers to the stories and narratives we construct about ourselves, our life experiences, and our sense of identity. We can create a coherent and meaningful framework by integrating our memories, emotions, goals, and personal values.

As a result, we may revisit and frame our most challenging times as opportunities for improvement and become aware of the benefits we received from them (Dings & Newen, 2021).

Leveraging Episodic Memories for Learning

While there are many factors and approaches involved in making the best use of episodic memory for learning, we have chosen two that have received a great deal of research attention (Woolfolk, 2021).

Metacognition

“Cognition about cognition, or thinking about thinking” (Woolfolk, 2021, p. 368), involves being able to understand and manipulate our cognitive processes regarding what we know and the information we remember (Cheng & Chan, 2021).

By reflecting more deeply on what we know and critically analyzing our episodic and semantic memories, we can improve our ability to recall and use our knowledge better.

When learning and remembering, ask yourself (Moran, 2023):

What do I already know?
What is fact or opinion?
Are there other ways to think about this?
Is this information convincing or relevant?

Motivation

Children and adults are intrinsically curious and motivated to learn (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

We can use our motivation to recall and use information held in our episodic and semantic memories by strengthening internal factors, such as (Ryan & Deci, 2018):

  • Relatedness – recognizing how our existing knowledge connects to what we are learning
  • Autonomy – retaining a degree of control in what, how, and when we learn
  • Competence – identifying with our sense of mastery; where have we come from in our learning, and where are we now?

Building upon such intrinsic factors in learning supports student interest, curiosity, competence, creativity, and conceptual understanding (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

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PositivePsychology.com’s Resources

We have many resources available for coaches and counselors working with their clients to promote change by using positive and negative memories.

Our free resources include:

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Three Good Things
    The positive impact of reflecting on three good things that have taken place in the last 24 hours has been consistently proven.

Try out the following three steps:

    • Step one – Each night before sleep, think of three good things that happened today.
    • Step two – Write them down.
    • Step three – Reflect on why they happened.
  • Learning from Value-Based Actions of the Past
    Maintaining awareness of our values is vital, yet we must ensure our behavior is aligned with them.

Try out the following three steps to facilitate the translation of values into concrete behaviors:

    • Step one – Identify the value you want to address; perhaps love, honesty, or perseverance.
    • Step two – Think of a time when you lived in line with that value.
    • Step three – Could you bring some of those actions and behaviors into your life now? If so, how?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

While our memories and how we relate to them undoubtedly shape how we think and behave, they should not define who we are. They do more than remind us of past events; they help us imagine possible futures (Williams et al., 2022).

As a result, episodic memory can be a powerful tool for positive change.

Episodic memory is part of our declarative memory. It is explicit, involving the conscious recollection of facts and events rather than non-declarative or procedural memory, such as knowing how to ski.

Recovering a past event is more complex than picking one up and dusting it off from our episodic memory. Instead, the process is constructive, based on the past and combined with our beliefs, biases, and thinking to fill in the blanks. Our memory is, therefore, often inaccurate and unreliable.

Such an autobiographical collection of data influences our sense of identity and shapes how we think about our future. Recent research even suggests it may help us avoid or recover from mental illness (Robson, 2019).

When working with clients, we must understand the nature of their memories and how they recall them. Supporting how our clients access, interact with, and interpret their memories is vital to their wellbeing and successful therapeutic outcomes.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Episodic memory can have many triggers, including smells, sounds, and visual cues. Emotionally significant events are typically more easily recovered (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

Traumatic memories are often emotionally charged. This can influence how they are stored and recovered. Painful memories frequently surface when they are unwanted and can significantly impact our present happiness (Moscovitch et al., 2005; Robson, 2019).

Episodic memory is not always reliable. Recalling past events is believed to be constructive rather than reproductive, so our recollections are subject to distortions and inaccuracies that arise from beliefs, biases, and current thinking (Eysenck & Keane, 2015).

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