Over Your Memory|
Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Psychologist
Adena Regional Medical Center
Every second we are alive, our brain functions. At a very basic level it
maintains our breathing, our blood flow, our body temperature, and other
aspects that allow us to stay alive and thinking. Emotional Memory Management
, or EMM, is concerned with the thinking part of brain functioning. Almost
every aspect of daily functioning is directly related to our memory. As you
read this document, your brain recognizes words and provides definitions
as you read - pretty fast operating when you think about it! While this
discussion is not concerned with reading or word-memory, it is concerned
with the manner in which the brain pulls memory files, makes those files,
and how those files influence our daily life.
The following discussion is based on psychological and neurological research,
combined with on-going theories regarding memory, thought control, and
therapy/counseling. Several theories and the results of research have been
combined by the author in a manner which allows the practical and daily use
of advanced knowledge on topics of memory and brain functioning. As research
in this area continues, the author anticipates new, neurological definitions
of previously-labeled psychological concepts such as "the subconscious" or
the various defense mechanisms.
While the underlying theories are very technical, the concept is presented
in a nontechnical manner. After reading this information, you are encouraged
to practice the techniques, be curious about how your file system works and
observe it in operation, and make the most of the new knowledge and understanding
A psychologist does not need to inform individuals about memory, we all know
what memory is. Memory allows us to recognize faces of old classmates, remember
old songs, remember good times and bad times, and remember important information
about events/experiences in our life. Much like a modern-day computer, the
brain stores memories in a system of files. In the past, these files were
thought to contain only information or data, much like the files in an office
contain patient information or file in a computer contains words or numbers.
As science advances, we are beginning to know more about the brain and how
it stores memories.
Recent studies in neurology tell us that the files contain not only
data/information, but emotions as well. In a manner that is still partially
unknown, the brain has the ability to store not only memories but emotions
as well - as they occurred at the time the memory was made.
Memory files thus contain two parts, the information about the event and
the feeling we had at the time of the event. Graphically put:
Memory file = Information + Feelings at the time
How Memories Are Made...
Throughout the day, we experience a variety of good, bad, and in-between
experiences. A specific memory area of the brain will hold memories for about
five days, to see if they are important. Memories that are not important
are usually "dumped" or erased after the five day waiting period. These erased
memories can never be recovered. As an example, we don't remember how many
times we turn on a light unless it shocks us or blows up.
A memory is stored in long-term storage or "dumped" depending on it's emotional
value. From a neurological standpoint, emotions or concentration releases
a brain chemical, called "calpain", that then stores the memory, basically
"memorizing" the experience including the details (who, what, where, when,
etc.) and the emotion present at the time. This is why we can easily memorize
information in an area of interest but have difficulty memorizing dull or
uninteresting topics. People with a "photographic memory" are felt to have
more of this brain chemical operating or have better control over the release
of the chemical.
Thus, in reviewing the two possible brain events that related to memory and
Emotional Event --> Brain chemical release --> Memory file stored.
Stronger the emotional, the longer the memory remains.
Boring Event --> Brain chemical not released --> Five-day memory only.
Memory eventually erased over a period of time.
We can store and create memory with data only, as when memorizing spelling
words or learning math. The brain will memorize with frequent repetition
or constant use. However, if a memory file containing only data is not frequently
used, the memory slowly fades away. Examples: 1) Can you calculate square
root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers
or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those
who also have an EM file!
Most of us cannot remember our many trips to the grocery store or service
station. However, we will always remember times which have a good or bad
value such as the time a store was robbed when we were there, the time an
old lady threatened us over a can of green beans, or the time we spilled
gasoline all over our clothes in one of those self-serve pumps. We don't
remember washing our car unless that spray wand at the car wash facility
got loose and just about gave us a skull fracture. In short, if a daily memory
does not have a strong good or bad emotional value, it is faded out.
As years pass, we build up quite a file system. We build up a collection
of good memories and bad memories. Our brain has the ability to pull these
memories at the drop of a hat - almost instantly. As an example, read the
following questions and watch how fast your brain pulls the file:
1. Name some songs by the Beatles.
2. Where were you when the space shuttle exploded?
3. Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
4. Who was your favorite high school teacher?
As you can see, your brain instantly pulls a file when a question is asked.
Importantly, you have no control over what file is pulled, how fast it is
pulled, or what is in the file. For example, younger adults and teenagers
may have no "file" on the Kennedy assassination. They were not around at
the time or old enough to make a memory of that experience. As an additional
example, every older adult remembers almost every detail of where he/she
was when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1949.
Those with emotional memories can not only give you the exact details, but
a variety of random and irrelevant details surrounding the event. This is
how powerful "emotional memory" (EM) can be.
Those of you with a "Pearl Harbor" file might have rapidly noted that the
above date of the attack was incorrect, it should have been 1941. If you
had a file for that date in history, you might have immediately noted the
error. When we have no file however, our brain does not alert us to errors.
This example is used to illustrate just how fast the brain can not only react,
but notice mistakes. This is another automatic brain activity.
How Files Affect Us...
An emotional memory file is a neurological/brain activity. The brain makes,
organizes, sorts, and controls it's files. Remember, the file contains two
parts, information and emotion. After years of neuropsychological research,
we have come to the following rules regarding file control. Each rule will
be explained in detail:
Rule: The brain operates on chemicals. These chemicals produce emotional
responses in the brain and body. Just like a certain combination of flour,
sugar, butter, and other foods can combine and produce a German chocolate
cake, these chemicals combine in our brain to produce certain moods, reactions,
Just like an automobile contains various fluids (brake, window washer,
transmission, oil, anti-freeze, etc.), the brain operates on chemicals known
as "neurotransmitters". While the subject is too technical for this paper,
it is known that these brain chemicals called "neurotransmitters" produce
various emotional conditions. Like the oil in our automobile, neurotransmitters
have a normal level in the brain and can be "low" or "high" depending upon
certain situations. Some typical neurotransmitters:
Perhaps the most actively researched neurotransmitter at
this time, serotonin is known to be related to depression, headaches, sleep
problems, and many mental health concerns. When serotonin is low in the brain
system - depression and other mental health problems are produced. Low Serotonin
is also associated with bulimia, a severe eating disorder, where the body
craves sweets and carbohydrates in a desperate effort to raise serotonin
levels. Antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, work by increasing serotonin
in the brain. As our Serotonin level returns to normal, our depression lifts.
Abnormally high levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain
produce paranoia, excitement, hallucinations, and disordered thought
(schizophrenia). Abnormally low levels produce motor or movement disorders
such as Parkinson's Disease.
Related to anxiety and depression, high levels in
the brain produce strong physical-anxiety manifestations such as trembling,
restlessness, smothering sensations, dry mouth, palpitations, dizziness,
flushes, frequent urination, and problems with concentration. A "panic attack"
is actually a sudden surge of norepinephrine in the brain.
Endorphins: Substances produced by the body that kill pain or produce
a feeling of well-being. In marathon runners, these substances are responsible
for the "runner's high". Also produced during pregnancy, a sudden increase
near delivery-time creates that need to rearrange furniture, go dancing,
or clean house.
The levels of these chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain create our
mood. A chronic low level of serotonin, as when experiencing long-term severe
stress, produces strong depression. The low serotonin creates symptoms such
- Frequent crying spells
- Loss of concentration and attention
- Early morning awakening (about 4:00 am)
- Loss of physical energy
- Increase in thinking/mind speed, pulling bad memories
- "Garbage" thoughts about death, dying, guilt, etc.
- Loss of sexual interest
Emotional Memory files contain instructions for the brain to use these
neurotransmitter ingredients to produce the mood in the file. We note that
all antianxiety, antidepressant, and antipsychotic medications focus on changing
the levels of these chemicals in the brain.
Rule: Thoughts change brain chemistry.
That sounds so simple but that's the way it is, with our thoughts changing
neurotransmitters on a daily basis. If a man walks into a room with a gun,
we think "threat", and the brain releases norepinephrine. We become tense,
alert, develop sweaty palms, and our heart beats faster. If he then bites
the barrel of the gun, telling us the gun is actually chocolate, the brain
rapids changes its' opinion and we relax and laugh - the jokes on us.
We feel what we think! Positive thinking works. As the above example suggests,
what we think about a situation actually creates our mood. Passed over for
a promotion, we can either think we'll never get ahead in this job (lowering
serotonin and making us depressed) or assume that we are being held back
for another promotion or job transfer (makes a better mood).
The brain is constantly, every second, pulling files for our
reference. It scans and monitors our environment constantly.
You've heard people compare the brain to a computer. Like a computer, the
human brain has a huge database containing billions of files (memories) for
our reference. As you read this document your brain pulls definitions of
words or phrases. As we meet people during daily activities, the brain pulls
their "file" for their name and related information. You'll note that with
people we haven't seen for many years the brain recognizes the face first
(a talent located in the right side of the brain) but often takes a while
to locate the name (located in the left side of the brain). As the left-brain
contains language and speech, it's more crowded over there and processing
is a bit slower.
If we travel to another city, the brain pulls up the map and landmarks.
Additionally, if we are a frequent traveler to that city, our journey to
Cincinnati, Ohio will pull files as we travel. Just sit back and listen to
the "file pulling" that takes place on a trip. "Hey Mom, remember the bathroom
in that gas station from last year - Uck!" "This is where that bad wreck
was a few years ago coming back from the beach." If the brain recognizes
something (road, building, sign, etc.) - it pulls its' file. It's that simple.
Always on the alert and ready to pull a file, the brain has built-in protection
behaviors. People that are shy and introverted (socially uncomfortable and
withdrawn) tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look
at them, creating anxiety. It's true. When anything enters our range of scanning,
almost like our radar range, the brain looks at it. A person walking into
a room is "scanned" by almost everyone else, that scanning procedure taking
about two seconds. The brains looks 1) to see if we have a file/reference
and 2) for protection. If the new individual is odd-looking, carrying a weapon,
or naked - the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare,
fright, or "Don't I know you?).
Individuals with physical features that are unusual will tell us about the
common "double takes" they receive at grocery stores. At the same time, other
people may dress unusually for exactly that reason. Some people enjoy the
constant attention and double-takes that are produced by wearing a safety
pin in your nose or coloring your hair bright yellow.
In the bottom line, your brain is always scanning and looking for
references/files. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering
an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed
facts/details. This is an automatic procedure, a reflex and instinct. To
override or cancel this natural/normal procedure requires manual control.
As an example, it is said that in a "sophisticated" restaurant, you know
the diners have "class" when the busboy loudly drops a tray of dishes - and
no one looks up! Now that's overriding the normal brain response.
Pulling these files automatically is great - unless they contain uncomfortable
emotional memory. This is where another rule is important.
The emotional part of a memory begins 90 to 120 seconds after
a file is pulled.
In mental health situations, this is perhaps the most important neurological
rule. Once we pull a file, after 90 seconds the emotional component begins.
Our mood starts to change, returning us to the mood which was present when
the file was made. As an example, remember someone discussing the recent
death of a loved one. The first two minutes of conversation may go well -
then they become sad. The longer the file is out (being discussed), the more
the emotional component surfaces to the point that they will become tearful.
If the file remains out, the exact feelings made at the time of the funeral
and death will surface - they will talk about loss, love, guilt, or whatever
other feelings are in the file.
As another example, ask someone about the biggest fish they have caught.
When the file is pulled you will receive about two minutes of data, the where
and when. Once the memory relives the catch, the person's eyes will widen,
their energy level will increase, they may begin arching their back as though
illustrating a tough fight, and their entire mood and posture will move as
though simulating the reeling-in of a fish. Again, after about two minutes,
the emotional component begins to act on our brain chemistry, changing our
mood/feelings back to that time.
Socially, imagine having a "bad file" on an individual in the community.
You are minding your own business and shopping at Kroger's. You turn the
corner only to be confronted by Mr. X. What happens is this - your brain
immediately pulls the file, you are somewhat confused at first, and your
emotion of anger, fear, or whatever is in the file begins to surface. Even
though you may not have seen the individual in 10 years, the Emotional Memory
(EM) file is still active and wide-awake in your brain. This explains how
many people can say that simply seeing an enemy or disliked person can ruin
their entire day. If the file is not properly controlled, the mood will remain
for the rest of the day.
The goal in file control is to prevent the 90 - second emotion from coming
to the surface. We all have bad files but most people try to control them
by preventing the emotional part from bothering them. They do this by putting
the file away before the two-minute time limit.
Rule: The brain only allows one file out at a time.
This rule of brain operation is easy to understand. Much like a television,
VCR, or tape player, only one channel/program/tape is allowed to operate
at a time. The brain works the same way.
As you read this paper, your brain is focusing on information in the paper.
Luckily, the brain will focus on anything we choose, or will play any file
or tape we choose. If you suddenly decide to stop reading this paper and
watch television, your brain will completely go along with that idea.
Also, your brain can switch files at the speed of light. As an example, allow
your brain to change files as your read the following sentences:
1. Where was your best vacation?
2. Who is your favorite relative?
3. Think about the person who last died in your family.
As you read those questions, you brain immediately pulled the files to provide
you with the information. The first two questions were rather routine and
even if the files were allowed to remain open, would probably not cause much
in the way of emotional distress or upset. However, what about the third
file. If we allowed it to stay open, we may start thinking about departed
grandmother, parents, or close friends. That file, after the two-minute limit,
would make us feel sad, lonely, and create all the feelings associated with
grief. Importantly, the brain doesn't care whether it's thinking about a
departed relative or your favorite song.
The brain doesn't care which file is active.
Like the body, the brain operates many times on automatic. Our breathing
operates the same way. We can take control of our breathing and inhale, exhale,
inhale, and so forth. We can also ignore our breathing, the brain will switch
to automatic, and we will breath anyway.
The brain operates the same way. It will automatically pull files as we go
about our day. As we see fellow co-workers, friends, or neighbors, it will
automatically pull their file - that's how we remember their name and information
about them. The brain does this automatically. Importantly however, the brain
really doesn't care which file is out. However, the fact that the brain operates
on automatic is important to us.
When the brain operates on automatic, the files it pulls are greatly influenced
by our mood. For example, if you are severely depressed, if your brain is
left on "automatic," it will pull nothing but bad, trash, and garbage files.
When depressed, due to the brain chemistry involved, our brain will automatically
pick bad files to torment us. Our brain will pull every bad file it can find,
often far back into our childhood. As long as the depressed brain operates
on automatic, it will continue to make us miserable by pulling every file
which has guilt, depression, and a bad mood in it. It will play a series
of our "worst hits".
Remember, we can change files at will. Since the brain really doesn't care
which file is active, a depressed mood can be changed by simply switching
the brain to manual, taking more control over our thoughts. This is especially
helpful when a bad file is pulled accidentally. This fact will be discussed
further in this paper.
Rule: Like the files, the brain only allows one feeling or emotion
to be active at a time.
Again, this is a simple rule if we think about it. At any one second, the
brain only allows one feeling. We cannot be happy and sad at the same time.
As an example, it is almost impossible to be in a "romantic" mood if you
are anxious, depressed, or fearful. In another example, pull a file on someone
you think is romantically attractive. Get a picture of that person in your
mind. Now imagine someone throwing a large snake on your lap. You'll notice
the romance immediately disappears and fear of the snake becomes the active
Many people have used this brain rule to deal with bad files. As an example,
many people have bad files on certain individuals. Suppose we have a bad
file on "John Doe." The mention of his name, seeing him in the street, or
any reference to this man brings up a bad file which has bad feelings - anger,
hatred, resentment, etc. One way to cope with this bad file is to place a
funny name or comment on the file label. In other words, instead of a "John
Doe" file, we now have a "Beanie Weenie" file. You'll notice that many divorced
individuals have humorous names for their ex-spouse. This is the same principle.
If we pull up a bad file but we have a funny name on it, it prolongs the
emotion from surfacing and allows us to put the file away without any problem.
The fact that the brain allows only one feeling also allows us to have great
control over our moods, more than we think. For example: A nasty neighbor
calls and harasses us for some reason. We immediately pull the file on this
neighbor, then another file as we are upset, and end up hanging up with a
mood of anger, resentment, and an attitude of "I'll break her face." As long
as we keep her file out during the day, our mood will be the same - anger,
resentment, and so forth. In high stress jobs, for example, people frequently
assure others that they don't take their job home with them, that they leave
the work, briefcase, and paperwork at the office. Importantly, while they
don't take the "work" home with them, they clearly take the "mood" home with
them. They don't bring home the briefcase, they bring home the irritability,
tension, and high-stress feelings.
However, if we choose to change our mood, we can do things like listen to
favorite songs, look at a high school annual, look at vacation pictures,
and do other things which will cause the brain to pull different files which
have different moods - better moods.
Keep in mind, the brain will do anything we want: it will allow us to be
angry the rest of the day or it will allow us to change it's mood - it simply
Brain Operation and Daily Use
In all discussions, feelings, and activities during the day, the brain is
constantly pulling files. What feelings are contained in those files depends
on how our mood will be that day. Files can be very helpful if we have a
lot of good files.
While good files can be helpful in terms of changing our mood, making us
feel better, or providing a bright spot in the middle of an otherwise tough
day, bad files can strongly impair our communications with others. Many times,
a routine discussion, debate, argument, or hassle can cause files to enter
our brain and give us difficulty.
In working with others, after a while we begin to tell when a file is out.
For example, when you hear words such as, "Well, when I was young...", "Just
like last week...", or "This is not the first time..." - a file has been
pulled. If we were to videotape a discussion, we would immediately learn
that all discussion, debate, and agreement is lost when a file comes out.
This brings us to another rule:
Rule: You can't argue with a file.
When a file comes out, it is as though we have placed a tape in our VCR.
The tape begins playing and we hear the same discussion or feel the same
feelings over and over. Husbands and wives refer to this sometimes as "broken
record" conversations. We get the same lectures, the same anger, the same
resentment, the same everything - it's in the file. As an example, two people
can be discussing whether they have enough money to purchase a lawnmower.
The wife mentions using a particular credit card - that pulls a bad file
in her husband, perhaps the "VISA" file. At that point, the husband launches
into a long story about credit cards, high interest, harassing letters, and
so forth. When that file is opened up, a discussion about the lawnmower becomes
The way files open and close in our brain can be a real problem with
communication. While we may try to remain business-like and focus on a topic
of discussion, we can't help but pull files. This brings up to another rule:
Rule: Any stimulation can pull a file.
Our body has five senses, vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. A file
can be pulled by any of those senses. Example: The Vietnam combat veteran
who automatically thinks of his combat experience when he hears a medical
How we automatically think of high school and related events by hearing an
old song. The five senses are very powerful when it comes to pulling files.
Something else can pull files as well.
Emotions can pull files. We must remember that the brain is always looking
for files in what we see, hear, and what we feel. As an example, emotions
become attached to files. An adult who has had a bad first marriage may
automatically pull a jealousy file any time his wife mentions, "I might be
late". The anxiety in that statement causes the brain to search for a file
that make sense - it pulls up a jealousy file from the first marriage. If
the husband allows the file to stay out, he will become insecure, jealous,
and suspicious for no reason in the present. In second marriages, bad
file-pulling is a very common yet very hazardous activity.
Another common way that emotions pull files is in the case of a panic attack.
When an individual suffers a panic attack, a powerful brain chemical is released
in the frontal area of the brain which creates the panic attack. After an
attack however, we have clearly made a bad file - our brain remembers the
attack and the feelings. Months later, we may be in a crowded store or in
an emotionally tense situation when the brain recognizes that emotion - it's
seen it before during the panic attack. At that point, the brain immediately
pulls the "panic attack" file. If we allow the file to stay out or pay attention
to it, we are quite likely to have another panic attack - that's what's in
Let's keep in mind that famous actors and actresses have known this method
for years. If they want to cry on stage, they can pull a sensitive file from
their personal life and within 90 seconds, tears are flowing. Remember: With
each emotion or experience, the brain is always searching to see if we have
a file on that topic.
Files and Marriage/Relationships
To solve any problem, a typical marital discussion should not last more than
10 to 15 minutes. If your going to buy a car or discuss what to do about
Aunt Gladys, it shouldn't take a three hour discussion. Discussions that
last longer than 15 minutes usually contain files. In discussing whether
to visit Aunt Gladys over Christmas, the discussion may start out well at
first - then we start pulling files. After three hours of arguing, we find
that we have discussed the fact that certain relatives don't like us, that
we don't like certain relatives, that so and so is the black sheep, and on
and on. What began as a business-like conversation has been ruined by files
that have been pulled as the discussion continued.
You'll know a file is pulled because the direction of the discussion will
not make sense. We know a file is operating when either the content or mood
doesn't make sense to the discussion at hand.
A teenager who asks permission to go to a drive-in movie and is suddenly
met with anger, resentment, accusations, and suspiciousness by the parent
- she has run into a severe communication block. Mother or dad has pulled
a file from their teen years - a bad file. Again, we always know a file is
out because the content or mood doesn't fit the present situation. We must
then remember - you can't talk to a file. People who argue with the content
of a file have as much chance as an individual who argues with the television
while a videotape is playing.
Files and Depression
As mentioned, when our brain chemistry changes during depression, bad files
are immediately pulled, as many as we will allow. These files will keep pulling
until the automatic file-pulling is stopped by medication or treatment, or
until we take control.
One particularly bad problem with depression is pulling old files. Again,
when we pull an old file we relive the emotion - that's what's in the file.
We have seen cases where patients have discussed a horrible experience from
15 to 20 years ago stating, "I though I got over it, I guess I didn't!"
Truthfully, they have gotten over that experience - but the file is still
powerful. Depressed individuals suffer from the "garbage truck", that truck-load
of horrible files that prompt them to think about childhood trauma/abuse,
previous relationships and rejections, and any time they have failed within
recollection. Again, the file makes us relive the emotions at that time.
Even 20 years beyond the present, if we bring out a horrible file, we will
Clients that are depressed are encouraged not to pay attention to the various
files being pulled. Again, when a depressed brain operates on automatic,
it pulls nothing but garbage/trash. If you are depressed, be prepared to
experience a tremendous amount of "mental garbage." Please, take no action
on that garbage.
Files and Anxiety
We have all heard of the Guru who can change his blood pressure, slow his
heart or breathing rate, stop bleeding cuts, or change his brain waves by
meditation. As our brain controls these physical reactions/conditions, those
experiences are possible with proper brain/thought control. Anxiety consists
of both thinking symptoms (worry, fear, dread, anticipation of misfortune,
etc) and physical symptoms - actually more physical than thinking! Typical
physical manifestations of anxiety include jitteriness, trembling, muscle
aches, eyelid twitch, strained facial expression, sweating, heart pounding,
dry mouth, clammy hands, upset stomach, frequent urination, poor concentration,
and the feeling of having a lump in your throat - just to name a few! What
a deal - you receive all the above in just one package - "anxiety".
Anxiety can be paired with certain events, creating a very strong file that
contains both the anxious event (public speaking, air flights, etc,) and
the physical reaction as well. When the situation is recognized by the brain
- the anxious/trauma file is pulled - and the brain chemicals are released.
It's easy to see why files with anxiety are so powerful - they seem to light
up the entire body system from head to toe!
Files and Physical/Mental Trauma
One of the most common situations in which emotional memory files create
severe problems is in physical or mental trauma. Many of us have experienced
trauma in our life. Of the people living in New York City, 85 percent have
been mugged/robbed. Studies suggest that 45 percent of all females have been
sexually molested or assaulted in some manner. Trauma, or severe emotional
memory, can be created by physical assaults, combat experiences, crime, death
of a loved one, viewing severe accidents, surgery, or brush-with-death
In trauma, the brain not only memorizes everything about the event - including
the emotions - but adds the surroundings as well. If we are assaulted in
our home, suddenly our home is no longer comfortable due to the memories
it produces. A severe automobile accident may prompt people to quit driving
completely or develop panic attacks if they near the site of the accident.
Trauma Emotional Memory (EM) files are perhaps the strongest emotional files
and often create long-lasting phobias or difficulties if not properly handled.
Old Emotional Memory (EM) trauma files are often at the heart of long-standing
difficulties. Early sexual trauma, for example, can create poor sexual
response/interest that will later affect marriages. Physical assault can
produce problems with physical closeness many years later. While such situations
are very troublesome, we are reminded that the brain is simply operating
on automatic - there are no "positive" files for reference. Correction is
often a matter of taking manual control of those situations, creating new
files, and "watering down" the old files.
Rule: The brain pulls the most recent and most powerful file first.
Imagine being stressed-out for six months, almost at the breaking point.
You decide to stop by Kroger's to pick up some bread and milk. While in the
store, you run into someone you dislike which immediately pulls a bad file.
As you continue to see them in the store, you keep a file out and your mood
becomes worse. At that point, your brain, already overtaxed, kicks in with
a panic attack. You feel panicky, you begin to smother, and you feel as though
you are going to have a heart attack. You end up leaving your groceries and
running out of the store.
You have thus created a panic-attack file with a label "Kroger" on it. Therefore,
the next time you drive by Kroger's or stop for milk, your brain will pull
the panic-attack file first. You'll develop a feeling - "I can't go in there!"
Whenever we experience anxiety, the brain makes a file and includes the
circumstances. This is exactly how people become agoraphobic - or become
fearful of leaving their home. Several agoraphobic patients have areas of
the town that are "off limits" - that area of the town pulls a panic file.
We've all heard of people who have suffered an automobile accident and for
many months later are afraid to drive - driving pulls a horrible accident
file. Perhaps a familiar example is the popular movie "Top Gun." After losing
his best friend in a out-of-control jet, our hero "Tom Cruise" experiences
a panic attack after a similar event later in the movie. Fortunately for
the movie he talks his way out of the panic attack and goes on to become
the hero. Again, just about any experience can pull a bad file and we must
protect our self from these files.
After a crisis or emotional upset, a file is made. If that file has a strong
emotional value, it will be the first file pulled. Example: A relative by
the name of Bill dies. For many months from that point, his death will be
the first file pulled when anyone mentions the name. To avoid the constant
reminder of sadness, when his name is mentioned we "skip" the first file
and pull other "Bill" files, fishing trips, holidays with relatives, etc.
How to Know When A File Is Operating
1. When a file is accidentally pulled, the individual will almost immediately
stray off the topic of discussion. As a listener, if you get a feeling of
"What's that got to do with this?" - you're listening to a file. Remember,
you can't argue with a file.
2. As a file contains the same information each time it's pulled, when you
hear lectures, comments, or attacks that appear to be a "broken record" -
it's a file. When a file is pulled, the individual will say the same things,
feel the same way, and react the same way that you heard before. This is
quite common in marital arguments and a listener usually gets the impression,
"This is the 25th time I've heard this."
3. A file is pulled when the emotional reaction is far above what would be
expected from the situation. A husband and wife meets an old boyfriend or
girlfriend at the supermarket. Suddenly, all the way home, there's a gigantic
reaction complete with jealousy, suspiciousness, and anger. Somewhere, a
file as been pulled.
4. Many files begin with, "We've talked about this before," "When I was
young...," and so on. References to the past are almost always related to
a pulled file.
5. If the listener has the general idea that the conversation doesn't make
sense, your probably listening to a file. Teenagers have difficulty, for
example, understanding why a simple request for money leads into a long
discussion of dad's collecting pop bottles for money during his youth. The
key is the phrase, "When I was your age..."
6. If you find yourself thinking about a past trauma or bad situation, you
may have an old file out and also be depressed and stressed. When depressed
or stressed, the brain becomes our worst enemy, pulling files that have strong
negative content and making us relive and reexperience old events. Forty-year
old women begin thinking about childhood abuse, a mature adult tearfully
recalls memories of a horrible and violent early childhood, or an older male
suddenly thinks, feels guilty, and grieves about his experiences in combat
(WW II, Korea, Vietnam, etc.). When the brain pulls these old files we know
brain chemistry is upset. Look for early morning awakening, increased brain
speed, and decreased concentration as additional indicators - but forget
those files, they've already been emotionally solved and put away those many
years ago. The brain is simply playing old Emotional Memory (EM).
Techniques for File Control
1. Practice paying attention to how your file system works. If you find yourself
in a bad mood, or even happy mood, use the approach, "What file is out?"
You will then find the file, what feeling is contained in the file, and will
then be able to have some control over the file.
2. If a bad file starts to come out, do something physical before the two-minute
emotional release surfaces. If someone mentions a name or you have an event
that brings up a bad file, for example, immediately pinch your ear, touch
your watch, or do something physical that lets you know a file is out. You
may then change files mentally or even verbally. When talking with others,
we can verbally change files by stating, "That's kind of a sensitive topic
for me, I'd rather not discuss that." The physical action helps remind us
that we have control over these files.
3. Take a bad file and put a funny name on it - the funnier the better. If
we have people we dislike or even hate, a funny name is helpful in controlling
the emotional content of that file. Common names that might be used are "Bozo,"
"Beanie Weenie," "Air Head," etc. It is also effective to combine both the
funny name and physical action.
For example, if we call a gossip-oriented relative "Sinus Drip", we can combine
the pulling of the file with the name and the physical action of blowing
our nose. Again, as the brain will only allow one feeling at a time, the
humor and physical action usually is enough to kill the file.
4. Many times we go through a series of horrible experiences, often lasting
for years. These may include bad marriages, periods of unemployment, traumatic
childhoods, and so forth. Place all those files in one mental filing cabinet.
Then place a label on the entire cabinet, one that reflects the condition
at that time. Some clients have used such labels as, "Wild and rowdy years,"
"My misery years," and so forth. When a file from that period is brought
up, instead of focusing on the file and allowing the emotion to surface,
the individual thinks to himself, "That file is from my wild and rowdy years,
it's not needed now." Lumping all files together in one general category
decreases the emotional impact and prevents pulling specific files.
5. Together with your spouse or significant other, you may train each other
to recognize when one file is out. When a file pops out, a simple time-out
hand signal, a certain look, or a certain comment may make the other person
aware that a file is out at the wrong time. This cuts down many arguments.
Using this method, couples tend to stay on-track and discuss their concerns
more at length, without being bothered by bad files.
6. Looks for "blocks" in communication with others. Often these emotional
blocks are actually files being pulled in response to something the other
person does. Do they sound like a relative/friend or do they remind you of
something or some situation. Make a new file on that person.
7. Keep several good and mood-lifting files in close memory. If a bad file
is pulled during the day, you then have good files ready to recall - and
change your mood. Many people have files about vacation or other happy times
to be used if a bad file is pulled. Always follow a bad file with a good
file - it keeps your mood up.
8. In times of social crisis, create and rehearse a special file to cover
uncomfortable questions - a "press release". During a divorce/separation
situation, people frequently ask about your situation. Rather than pull up
the "divorce" file, pull up a "divorce public relations" file that states
"things are pretty disorganized right now with us. I tell you more as things
settle down." Make the public relations file brief, short and sweet.
9. Practice file pulling, especially good files. Look at old pictures of
happy times, high school yearbooks, etc. Observe the number of files that
are pulled when you do this. It's amazing how much information your memory
The Brain doesn't know if a file is real or imagined!
How can this be? The brain makes files based on information it is given,
usually through our senses but sometimes through our thoughts. If we have
a sweetheart, being in the same room will give us that warm, romantic feeling.
However, looking at their picture and thinking about them will do the same
thing - even though they are not present. Even better, simply thinking about
them will produce the same feelings (pulling the same file). The brain only
reacts to the file or image, it doesn't care how it receives that image or
information, by physical presence, by reminders (pictures), or by "thought".
Psychologists at the University of Chicago took three groups of basketball
players. Group One practiced foul shots each day for thirty days. Group Two
was instructed to "imagine" shooting foul shots each day for thirty days.
Group Three was instructed to do nothing. When tested, Group One (practicing
shots) improved 24 percent. Group Three (doing nothing) had no improvement.
Group Two, the group that only imagined shooting foul shots, improved 23 percent
yet did not physically touch a basketball.
Why? As far as the brain knew, both groups that practiced (real & imagined)
had shot foul shots daily but Group Two never missed! Group Two, never missing,
was given more emotional confidence by their brain and the brain also memorized
the foul-shooting pattern as though they were on the court. In Group One,
their brain experienced the hit-and-miss pattern of actual foul shooting
which did not build confidence.
Why mention this? We have the ability to build our own files, even when the
actual real-world experience is lacking. Using our imagination, we can alter
files by imagining new information. If shy, we imagine ourselves in gradually
more and more social situations, talking with friends, being in groups, giving
talks to groups, teaching, and finally being on Johnny Carson. If we have
bad files on certain people, using our imagination, we "add" new information
to the file. We really do this everyday. If we are wronged by someone, our
anger becomes uncomfortable to the point that we begin imagining how guilty
they must feel, how low their life really is, and how they will be unhappy
the rest of their days. After our brain works on that file, we eventually
feel sorry for them! While the brain does this job for us normally, we need
to hurry the process along at times.
Pick a target problem for improvement - then design, imagine, and create
a set of files to correct it. If you have problems dealing with your supervisor
at work, imagine situations in which you first talk to him, then gradually
stand your ground in a business manner. We can create files to help anything
from tennis backhand to social withdrawal.
Making New Files
- Since our brain can't tell real from imagined experiences, practice making
new files to replace your old. If shy, imagine or daydream social competency.
If uncomfortable around certain people, imagine positive meetings and outcomes
- Depressed and anxious individuals
always imagine negative
experiences - and the brain changes chemistry because it thinks that experience
happened. If we sit down and think that a loved one has died (even though
they are in the next room), our brain will make us depressed and we will
cry. If depressed or anxious, think the opposite of the brain's normal
disposition - daydream or imagine only positive experiences. It may sound
strange but your brain will think your life is better (it only knows what
it's told!) and will chemically lift your mood gradually.
- Pick an area in which your are having trouble. Create/Invent new files
to deal with that situation. If uncomfortable around your supervisor at work
or your relatives, imagine positive scenes in which you solve conflicts or
- If confidence and self-esteem are low, imagine scenes in which your confidence
is increased. Imagine being praised for your efforts, being successful, or
finally receiving the acceptance/affection from those who have not provided
it in the past.
There are other ways to deal with old files as well.
Changing, Destroying, and Contaminating Old Files
The brain's file system, just like the government's files, can be ruined
and changed in many ways. One way to change a bad file is to alter it's content,
to add additional information of your choosing - again, the funnier the better.
If you have a file where a parent is scolding you, bring up the file, then
add the fact that the parent is only six inches tall, standing on a desk,
and shaking his/her little finger at you. We can also take a file, review
the content and emotion, and find funny things about the file. With some
imagination, we can rewrite a file which contained a fight or argument into
something looking like The Three Stooges. If we put laughter/humor in the
file, it changes the emotional content.
Files can also be "watered down". As an example, thinking about bad files
while our favorite music plays in the background has a way of watering down
a file, making it lose it's emotional impact.
1. Remembering hearing a good song for the first time on the radio and falling
in love with it. However, after hearing it 100 times during the next month,
it loses it's emotional value.
Files can be erasing by literally boring them to death or a "watering down"
procedure. If we have the time and opportunity, we can set aside a time for
file destruction. During the particular 15 minutes of the day, we allow ourselves
to pull up files and see what's in them, feel some of the emotion, and practice
changing the files.
2. We can also water down files by pulling them in different situations.
If we have a bad file, pull that file when watching TV or video, listening
to music, or when resting in the sun on the beach. While the file is out,
add observations of your circumstances (the music, scenery, etc.) to the
file, a technique that both lowers the anxiety present as well as spoiling
the bad file.
3. Remember that humor is the best way to contaminate a file. If a bad file
is out, find everything about the memory that is silly, humorous, or comical.
If nothing is - invent something funny about that experience. Rehearse how
things might have happened different, in a funnier manner, than we remember.
4. When a file is out, remind yourself frequently that it is simply a file
of your past - Where you've been - Not where you are. We can watch movies
of World War II but we must remind ourselves that we are not currently at
war! Self-comments such as "I'm glad I don't live that way anymore!" or "Those
sure were tough times!" are helpful. Compare old files with your current
situation. This is helpful in old-file jealousy or suspicion, reminding ourselves
that our current partner is not our old partner.
File Control in Special Situations
- File control is a serious problem in alcohol or substance abuse. Remember:
the alcohol and substance (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) automatically create
good files due to their action on the brain. Sadly, bad files are created
in the abusers home/family due to fights, arguments, and hangovers. Therefore,
thinking of alcohol/drugs rarely brings up a bad file to make the situation
unpleasant. In fact, talking about drinking or using drugs usually brings
To combat this situation, those who have problems with drugs and/or alcohol
are advised to pull a bad file when confronted with substances. This is a
common situation in those trying to maintain sobriety. How many times have
we socially heard someone turn down a beer with "No thanks, My wife would
kill me! I'd have no job and my children wouldn't speak to me!"
That person is using a file with a marital argument in it to kill his previous
attraction to the substance. If people pulled up a file on their worst hangover
every time they thought of alcohol, we might see a dramatic drop in national
- File control is especially important in marital/family discussions. Remembering
our 90-120 second rule about emotions surfacing when a file is pulled, marital
discussions on sensitive topics are best controlled by time-out techniques
which prevent entire files from being pulled. Couples are encouraged to conduct
business meetings with an egg timer! A three-minute egg
timer allows each party three minutes to state an issue, then three minutes
for the partner, and so on. The three-minute timer prevents "files" from
taking control of the discussion is couples stick to the procedure.
- The filing system works at night too! Dreams are often jumbled as the brain
pulls files and puts them together in our dreams. Dreams are actually a time
in which the brain sorts its' files, at the same time pulling old files.
Events during the day are reviewed and combined with old files in our dreams.
That's why we may dream of taking a shower in the middle of downtown Columbus!
Dreams only reflect our memory and our mood - they do not actually contain
hidden truths, warnings, or other special information.
- Many individuals have be traumatized by assault, death of loved ones, illness,
hospitalization, arguments, and other emotionally stressful events. Emotional
trauma produces a huge file, including the feelings of the event. To make
matters worse, those concerned with our welfare after the trauma often feel
the need to ask us about it - pulling the file! Trauma victims are encouraged
to create several rehearsed answers to common comments/questions, much like
the President's press secretary reads responses from a prepared paper. The
rehearsed response or "Press Release" usually prevents the original "bad"
file from surfacing as you are too busy recalling your rehearsed comment.
Question: "What happened to you the other night?"
Response: "I guess things got a little out of hand. I'm sorting things out
right now and as soon as I have all the details I'll sit down and give you
the story. I've discovered it's better not to talk about it right now but
I'm doing ok."
Trauma victims will also find that a location or set of circumstances will
almost immediately pull a strong file. Be prepared for the "I can't go back
there" reaction, often attached to a work site (where injured), location
of the trauma in your community, or activity ("I can stand to drive anymore").
Importantly, remember that if you have been traumatized - so have the people
who care about you! Your presence, phone call, or visit may pull
files about your experience, files containing grief,
feelings of helplessness, sadness, emotional shock, and so forth.
This is why many friends/relatives often avoid a trauma victim or depressed
friend/relative at first - it pulls their files which contain sadness, anger,
anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. The traumatized individual can often
help by using a rehearsed "file" which sends a signal to loved ones that
the situation and condition is being managed.
Feeling Levels Can Pull Files
When we see a friend in town, the brain looks for and pull his/her file.
Our emotions work this way also. When we begin to feel a certain feeling
or when our "feeling level" reaches a certain spot, the brain searches for
anything (a file or memory reference) we may have for that level of feeling.
The brain basically asks the question "Have I felt this way before?" - If
so, pull the file.
The explains why many people can only reach so far in a relationship. As
they become emotionally closer, the brain may look for a file reference.
Strong feelings ----- ? (brain looks for a reference, finds the file below)
Memory file: "First Marriage" That file contains strong
feelings ----> verbal/physical abuse ----- separation ----- divorce. Pulling
that old file in the new relationship puts your emotional and romantic progress
at a halt.
When we see what's in the "first marriage" file, it's easy to see how the
individual would become uneasy, upset, and even defensive in the new
relationship. This is why people become "bogged down" in relationships. If
we develop odd feelings or attitudes that don't seem to fit the situation
- look for a file that may be out. If you are thinking "Every time I feel
this way..." and then predict the future, you've got a file out.
Developing a Treatment Plan
Let's suppose we have a strong Emotional Memory (EM), perhaps the result
of an automobile accident, a childhood trauma, a life-threatening experience,
a physical assault, a public embarrassment, or something equally emotionally
traumatic. We can develop a treatment plan to eliminate the "emotional" part
of the memory. We can never eliminate the details of the memory/experience
- only brain damage or disease wipes out complete memories. The goal in the
treatment of Emotional Memories (EM) is to eliminate the emotional component
- the part that causes us emotional pain. If the emotional component/part
is taken away, we can relate the story without fear of being upset or returning
to that mood.
Keep in mind the goal with Emotional Memory (EM) -
emotional part of the memory. One of the fastest and easiest ways
to complete that task is to "water down" the emotional part of the memory.
To do this, imagine having a letter saved on a computer word processor. Each
time you retrieve the letter - it looks the same, reads the same, and says
the same thing. If we pull it up on the computer screen, read it, then save
it - nothing has changed. This is what happens when we relate Emotional Memory
(EM) events to others without adding to the memory or file.
What happens if we pull up that word processor letter each day. Each time
we pull it up on the screen, we add one long sentence to the letter - a sentence
that is silly, unrelated to the letter, or just a bit off-base - then save
it again. After two weeks we've added 14 sentences to the letter and the
original letter is now gone. It's something totally different now. We use
this technique to eliminate emotional parts of Emotional Memory (EM).
Technique: Each time we pull a bad Emotional Memory (EM) file, we
add something to it. A comment, a joke, a physical gesture, etc. The brain
will automatically save the file due to the new/added parts.
Sample Treatment Plan:
Event: We have been violently assaulted by someone.
Emotional part of the memory: The emotional component contains fears of dying,
a fight-for-my-life feeling, panic, and severe anxiety.
Procedure: Each time we bring up the Emotional Memory (EM) of the event,
we add something - the funnier the better. For example: "After that assault,
I've canceled my scheduled bout with Mike Tyson. I'm just not up to it." or "I've decided to market a line of assault-proof underwear. You
think JC Penneys would be interested?" or "I've haven't had a fight
like that since I used my brother's Beatles albums as frisbees!" It's like
adding a sentence each time we review the word processor letter - watering
down the original content over time. We can makeup or imagine part of the
event as a humorous addition, for example "I just kept thinking during the
attack, my taxes are due!!" The reactions of others to your humor will also
be added to the file. This is why a World War II vet can talk calmly about
horrible events during the war at the American Legion - he's discussed it
so often, in so many different circumstances, that the emotional part has
gone. Only the details remain. In Emotional Memory (EM), we naturally do
this technique, commonly known as "getting over it". This paper just tells
you how to do that faster and more efficiently. Any Emotional Memory (EM)
can be approached in this manner and "watered down".
We are a collection of memories - that's who we are, what makes up our
personality, what controls our behaviors, and what often produces our moods.
The good Emotional Memory (EM) is a blessing to us, remembering good times
during childhood, our favorite songs/events, and old friends. However, we
have all collected bad or often traumatic Emotional Memory (EM) files as
well. The goal of Emotional Memory (EM) Management is to control or eliminate
the emotional part of those files. If we can do that, our history of bad
experiences becomes just that - history. Those files become a record of where
we've been and experienced, not something that continues to control our moods
In daily living and especially during times of stress, our memory file system
is very important. It is a system that is active every second, works
automatically, and can change our mood within two minutes. Our office has
presented the above information with the hope that you can lower your stress
and live more effectively by controlling your emotional memory files rather
than allowing them to control you! Remember - our emotional file system is
like our breathing, it will operate on automatic or we can take manual control.
Knowing how the system operates allows us more control over our memories
and daily lives.
Permission by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Psychologist