A Place for Memories

tl;dr Two stories about giving memories living quarters in your mind, and how this technique helped me in putting hurtful memories to rest.

All our life we accumulate stuff we don't need. Declutter is en vogue: Get rid of that stuff! In the same way, we also accumulate memories. Some of them great, some of them not so much. Some of them valuable, some of them we could do without. How do we declutter our mind?

How do we get rid of memories?

Actually, you don't necessarily need to get rid of them. After all, the events, which they remind you of, molded you into who you are. But some memories are just hurtful, they keep nagging you. And that you don't need.

So, how do we put them in the backgound: There but not nagging? I've found something that worked for me, combining detachment and the Mind Palace.

Detaching from Memories

It started two years ago on a hike quite far south, because in special places you meet special people. For eight days I walked the North West Circuit on an island called Rakiura, or Stewart Island, south of the Southern Island of New Zealand.

One evening, in one of the amazing wooden huts that the Department of Conservation set up for hikers, far above Hellfire beach (yes, that's a place), I met Richard, another hiker walking the track in the same direction. As the sun set and a rainfront began hammering the roof of our hut we sat at the table and, after getting through obligatory traveler's talk, we spoke about things that we are passionate about. It turns out Richard is a psychologist, and one that specializes on post-traumatic therapy. His patients are people that lost somebody, that have been in an accident or were a soldier in a war. Those people have extreme memories, which keep them from being happy. What they needed was to take back control over those memories, instead of being battered by them every day. Richard helps them with that.

Memories are like imprints into your brain, and the deeper the mold, the harder it becomes to change it. To create a stronger, positive imprint, Richard put the patient into a very focussed state of mind, using hypnosis. Focus allows you to single out a bad memory and look at it as if you were a spectator. You detach, and that's when you have control.

Richard asked them to imagine a cinema, with a huge screen in front, and many comfortable seats for the audience. Then the patient would imagine sitting in the cinema they had created and a movie would play, the movie of their pain. Watching the movie from the cinema of your mind is a first step towards detaching. This is still very similar to what we do all the time when in pain: constantly churning that memory, like the tongue returns to something stuck between the teeth. But now we change the movie: Richard asked the patient to slow down the movie, play it at half speed, and watch it like that. Then, they'd go even slower. Lips grimacing slowly. Cars inching forward. Clouds moving barely, if at all. And slower.

And then the movie would stop.

You would stare at the screen, capturing a single moment of your memory, all while sitting in that cinema of your mind.

Then, the patient would reverse the movie, slowly, watching the picture move again, but backwards. Then forwards again. When you've the remote, when you're just watching, it's all less scary. You are not part of the movie anymore.

All this is a slow process. Depending on the patient, the severity of the memory imprinted on the mind, this could take many sessions over many weeks to get there. But having gotten there, being in control, they could then take the next step.

Sitting in the cinema, the patient would look at the huge screen showing the movie, and shrink it. So far, the picture would have been huge, stretched over the whole screen, overwhelming. Then, you'd change the projection and the movie would be half the size. You would watch it, forwards, backwards, lightning fast, slow motion, but in half the size. And then you halve it again, and again. You're in your comfortable seat and you shrink the pain, you watch it shrink, diminish, until it's unrecognizable.

And then you put it away.

This, too, happens over many sessions, and it takes effect only thru repetition: The brain favors often-used memories over insignificant ones, which we rarely think about. For example, at any time you remember where you usually put your shoes at home, while the birthday of the guy you met three years ago withered away into nothingness.

Now, I'm not a psychologist, and can't do this kind of therapy. And I'm rather glad not to have these kinds of memories either. But I know and understand the comfort of detaching from memories, the comfort of making them real and — instead of avoiding them, so they haunt you at night — facing them head on. Richards tale stuck in my mind as a fascinating way of doing just that.

Spatial Memory

The second technique takes advantage of spatial memory. Our minds usually excel at visualizing and remembering places. I first encountered a use for this at my university, the Hasso Plattner Institute.

In one of the frequent guest speaker sessions on soft skills a presentation coach explained to us how Cicero memorized his public speeches. The day before, he'd visit the place and stand at the exact spot where he would deliver the speech. He'd start watching what was on his left: Maybe a column, a door, a chair. And he'd think of the first part of his speech, the opening, and tie it to that thing.

Let's say I'm doing a speech on the challenges of trail running. I'd start with the fact that it's one of those things where I personally fight to get out of the door, but once I'm running I'm alive and all's well. Standing in front of the empty seats, I might notice a door on my left. Amazing, this is my home's door, the final hurdle to start running—and the start of my speech, too. Whenever I see the door I know that's how I begin: the running and the speech.

I'd then take a step back, talking about how important planning the run is. Letting my gaze wander from the door more towards the center I might find a poster on the wall, and of course this is the ground map of the trail! With it's beginning and end clearly marked, and all the fighting spots on it, too.

And like that Cicero moved from left to the right, placing parts of his speech, on things he saw. And when he spoke the next day, his speech, all of it, was right in front of him.

The coach at our university made us, the students, remember the last ten presidents of the United States by pointing out things going in a circle around the hall, and assigning a name to them. Within minutes, a chorus of voices repeated the presidents in the right order.

After this, Cicero's technique dozed in the back of my mind. I knew about it, but didn't find so much daily use for it. Then, I watched BBC's Sherlock, and learnt about the Mind Palace, another technique of using spatial memory, but for a more general purpose. In the series, Sherlock uses a place in his mind to store everything he may need to remember. When searching for a particular memory, he'd walk that place in his thoughts until he reached the spot where he left it.

The Mind Palace is a technique to store knowledge. You'd pick a place you know well, like the home you grew up in or your way to school. [1] The place itself is irrelevant; what counts is that you know it by heart, that you can close your eyes and, as if showing a visitor around, you are able to point out every single thing there is to see.

To prepare the Mind Palace for storing knowledge, you'd prepare exactly this tour: You'd figure out the path that you're walking through this place, because every time you use it, either to store memories or to retrieve them, you'll walk this exact path. Like in Richards technique, it's about repetition, to leave an imprint. And then, you'd start using it.

Me, I'd look at the first thing I see, a picture of a lake maybe, with a few Cumulus clouds in the sky, reflected in the murkiness of waters slowly being assimilated by reed. And I'd use this picture to store the name and hobby of a guy I just met: William, who loves kite-surfing. To do this, I'd figure out the most absurd, silly, mind-boggling way to connect those two facts with what I see in the picture.

William: Bill, Bill Clinton. President of the US. Power. United States: over the Atlantic, overseas, the big lake. (I'm from Europe.)

William: Bill, Bill Gates. Microsoft. Microsoft's IE eating the OS and browser market in the 90s, like the reed eats the lake.

Will-i-am: Will, I am—the will to live! Like the lake wanting to live. How can it survive, when it's shrinking all the time? It needs an army; it'll enlist the fish and frogs and insects in and around and fight a bloody and all-ending battle against the evil reed! Imagine the lake turning red from the rage.

I'd pick one of those associations, the one I think most peculiar, meaning the most memorizable, in my case the lake's struggle for survival. And then I'd look at the picture, imagine the battle, all of it, to make the memory stick.

The same I'd do for the hobby of kite-surfing. (Maybe the clouds, reflected on the water's surface would turn out to be helpful.)

As with any skill, practice delivers mastery, and in time you'd be able to assign a memory very quickly. Now the next time you walk the place, your Mind Palace, you'd look at all the things you assigned memories to, in the order that you see them, always the same. Being me, I would start by looking at the lake picture, and remember its will to live, and William. And then move on to the next thing, if needed.

I'm using the Mind Palace technique to remember all kinds of things: Historical facts, PIN numbers, words of a foreign language, things that friends share with me.

Putting It All Together

Those two stories recently connected, merged, when my girlfriend broke up with me and added a piece of pain to my mind. Since I still see her regularly, and want to be able to, the pain was not helpful. I am trying to never let such pain distract me from becoming the person I want to be.

Contemplating how to resolve this issue, I remembered Richard's story and also how well the Mind Palace had worked out for me. Now, the normal pain of severing a relationship is nowhere near as incisive as the cases that Richard treated, so I thought I could give it a shot and see if I could adapt his technique to my situation.

I ended up walking my house, my Mind Palace, to a room with many doors, and opened one of them. I placed a box, which reminded me of her, on a table in the middle of the room. There I stood in front of the table and opened the empty box. And then I remembered our time together, all the good and bad moments, each moment a picture in my mind. One by one, I looked at them and placed them into the box. Then I shut the box, turned around, closed the door, and walked away.

The memories are still there, of course. I remember all of it. But turning them into pictures and giving them a space in my mind helped me in creating distance, soothing the pain, speeding up recovery. Might not work for you, but did for me.

[1]footnote: While guides I read insisted on choosing a real place, I decided to build my Mind Palace from scratch: My ideal house and place of refuge and quiet.