How to Erase Bad Memories:
Science-Backed Practices for Letting Go of Fear, Pain and Hurt
BY AKSHAY NANAVATI
photo: tobi oluremi
Time Traveling to Change Your Past
I once worked with a woman named Rachel who was at a transition point in her life. She had just made the decision to abandon a lifestyle of clubbing and partying. Instead, she committed herself to a daily spiritual practice, eating only raw foods, and other positive changes. Despite her commitment, she found herself resisting the change and could not understand why. She knew this new lifestyle was exactly what she wanted, yet there was a deep-rooted fear holding her back.
Buried within her implicit memory lay the answer to her troubles. Working together, we wandered into her past to visualize the events that took place when she chose this new way of life. She remembered her old friends abandoning her because they could not tolerate her “extreme” raw food lifestyle. A series of these experiences led her to believe the raw food lifestyle meant having no friends.
Inevitably, being a social creature who craves human connection, she found herself scared to embrace that way of life. By bringing that implicit memory into her awareness, she was then able to shift the meaning she created for those events.
To help Rachel choose an empowering meaning, I guided her to visualize the healthier future she wanted to live in. When I sensed her desired future had been validated on an emotional level, I verbally steered her back into the past. At first, it was a shock for her to go from a place of joy to a place of darkness. But from that place of joy, she saw the experience in a different light.
Suddenly, in what can only be classified as a light-bulb moment, she realized her friends hadn’t abandoned her; they gave her the space to live her purpose. “They gave me the wings to fly,” she ecstatically realized. By changing the meaning ascribed to those past experiences, she no longer saw them as negative moments in her life. For her, the past had been altered. The “reality” itself changed because perception shapes reality, and perception is based on memories that constantly lie to us.
How Your Brain Turns an Experience into a Memory
“Every special date and anniversary, every advertisement, every therapy session, every day in school is an effort to create or modify memory.”
—Dr. Joseph Ledoux
Memories create the series of habits, associations, and patterns that make you who you are today. Like it or not, you are a product of your past. Your present is molded by it, and your future is dependent on it. But the past doesn’t have to define you. It isn’t real. Your memories are as plastic as your brain and you can learn how to erase bad memories. With a proper understanding of memory, you can manipulate it to let go of the past, push through your fears, and experience the bliss of Fearvana. There are three steps involved in the process of converting an experience into a memory:
1. Acquisition: Acquisition occurs when your brain, working in conjunction with the bodyguard at its base, receives and processes external stimuli. As you read this paragraph, your brain is starting to form a neural network based on the information it’s acquiring.
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2. Consolidation: Most of the information that comes into your brain is lost in short-term memory, but some of it becomes a part of your long-term memory. To implant an experience into your long-term memory, neurons are connected through pathways that collectively form large neural networks.
These are physical maps that materialize as structures in your brain representing a memory. The process of strengthening these pathways to build the construction of a memory network is called consolidation. How each memory (whether a happy or painful memory) is consolidated depends on various factors, including how much attention you paid to the event, the emotional impact it had, and the number of senses it engaged. If you simply skim this, it will fade away from your memory. If you focus on the content and apply it, you will gain the experiential memory required to consolidate the knowledge into your subconscious.
3. Retrieval and Reconsolidation: Retrieval is when you pull a past experience from your brain and bring it into the present. During retrieval, your brain activates a neuron that triggers the other neurons in that particular memory network. If a part of a memory is activated, such as the sights, sounds, or tastes you experienced, it lights up the rest of the neurons in that network. This is why the song “When You Say Nothing at All” triggers the memory of my ex-girlfriend. Reconsolidation is what occurs during retrieval. It is your brain drawing information from various regions and putting these pieces together as a consolidated memory to bring into your consciousness.
The efficiency of each of these steps is dependent on many factors, including genes, health, stress levels, and belief systems, to name a few. Regardless of where you are now, though, your memory is plastic, so it can be improved and healing of memories can occur.
There are two kinds of memories you have the power to mold: implicit and explicit memory.
What did you do yesterday evening? To answer that question, your brain activated the neural network of yesterday’s events and retrieved that memory map to tell the story of what you did. You actively brought the past into your present awareness. This happens both when you’re casually thinking about or dwelling on the past. The conscious direction of your mind into your past is known as explicit memory.
On the other hand, if you were to put down this book, step outside, and get in your car, assuming you know how to drive, would you have to think about it? The reason you can drive with such ease, or walk through your home, or even know how to walk for that matter, is because of implicit memory. Implicit memory runs on autopilot without your human brain.
When you entered into this world as a helpless infant, these memories were responsible for your transformation into adulthood. In fact, researchers believe that in the first year and a half of our lives, we only encode memories implicitly. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, the three features of implicit memory are, as follows:
1. You don’t need to use focal, conscious attention for the creation of implicit memory.
2. When an implicit memory emerges from storage, you do not have the sensation that something is being recalled from the past. (You don’t think about the first time you learned how to walk every time you walk.)
3. Implicit memory does not require the participation of the hippocampus (the human brain’s role in memory).
Your implicit memories are responsible for your beliefs, your subconscious mental models, your sense of right or wrong, and the triggers that cause you fear, stress, and anxiety.
What If You Could Be Fearless?
“Memories influence every action and pattern of action you undertake.”
—Dr. Daniel Amen
The neural networks that form a memory live in many different areas of your brain, but there are two areas most active in the creation and storage of memory: the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The amygdala is responsible for implicit memory, and the hippocampus is responsible for explicit memory. That is an oversimplification, but it is a useful one in helping you understand the two kinds of memory.
Dr. Siegel calls the hippocampus “the master puzzle piece assembler.” It compiles the information it receives from multiple areas of your brain to produce good and bad memories, as well as meanings and emotions for any event. It also helps consolidate the information stored in short-term memory, turning it into a long-term memory you can recall in the future. When I asked you what you did yesterday, those events were probably not at the top of your mind. By answering the question, as Dr. Siegel states, your hippocampus “literally link[ed] together the neurally distributed puzzle pieces of implicit memory.” The conscious activation of your memory turns the implicit into explicit. Various parts of the brain work together to form these implicit memories, such as the basal ganglia, which is “the habit center” of your brain, but the amygdala is primarily responsible for this task. The amygdala, or fear center of the brain, stores emotionally charged and painful memories to help you avoid future danger. If you are like me and you were a bitten by a dog as a child,
In 2010, researchers Justin Feinstein and his colleagues discovered a woman, whom we shall call Mary, with an extremely rare disease that left her without an amygdala. She was a goldmine for neuroscientists. They did everything they could to scare this woman, but nothing worked. They made her watch scary movies; they gave her snakes; they put spiders in her hand; but none of them registered a fear response in her brain. Imagine being completely fearless. You could quit that job you hate, run that marathon, write that book, start that business, and do all those things you have always wanted to do but have been held back by fear.
Turns out, it’s not that easy, as Mary discovered. One night while strolling through a park alone, Mary was attacked by someone wielding a knife. What would you do if that happened to you? More than likely, you would not return to that same park alone and in the dark, at least not in the next week. The reason you would stay away is because you have a functioning amygdala that remembers the danger. Mary did not have this capacity. The very next night, she went back to the same park, once again, alone.
Mary had been attacked at gunpoint, had her life threatened, and was almost killed in a domestic violence incident—all because she had no amygdala to process fear and keep her out of life-threatening situations. The amygdala helps keep us alive by learning what to fear.
“You don’t learn how to be afraid; your amygdala doesn’t have to learn what to do; it learns what to do in response to [stimuli]. So it learns what stimuli it should respond to,” says Ledoux. “So it’s learning and memory in that sense that we call an implicit kind of memory where you don’t have to have any conscious involvement.” Remember, no matter what fears show up with bad memories, they are not bad or unreasonable. You don’t control their existence; the amygdala does.
Without the activation of your conscious self, how can you be held responsible for your fears? Your implicit memory has implanted them into you. This is why so many of us are held captive by the events of the past and the fears they have created within us. The good news is that these memories are not actually true, and they most definitely are not set in stone. You can learn to forget bad memories and heal painful memories.
Your Past Is a Lie
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Shortly after the tragedy at the Twin Towers on 9/11, psychologists conducted a survey with hundreds of people about their memories of the event. In a follow-up survey one year later, they found that 37 percent of the details were different. Within three years, that number rose to almost 50 percent.
Some of the memory alterations were minuscule; others involved an entire shift in the story line. Some people even remembered being at a different location that morning.
After the study, Elizabeth Phelps, one of the lead researchers, wrote, “What’s most troubling, of course, is that these people have no idea their memories have changed this much. The strength of the emotion makes them convinced it’s all true, even when it’s clearly not.”
In another study, conducted on three hundred people convicted of crimes in the United States who were later proven innocent through DNA testing, researchers found 75 percent of them were sent to prison based on false memories of eyewitness. The eyewitnesses did not know they were lying; they simply believed their memories to be facts. Truth is nothing more than what we believe it to be, and those beliefs are as malleable as the memories that created them.
To demonstrate how our memories can be manipulated, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has repeatedly proven that as many as 50 percent of the people in any given study could be tricked into believing a fabricated event. Using what she calls a “false feedback” technique, her team embedded into the minds of their research participants fake memories, such as finding yourself lost and crying in a shopping mall as a child, almost drowning before being rescued by a lifeguard, and getting attacked by an animal, to name a few.
In numerous other studies with people from all walks of life, even those trained to handle stressful situations like those in the U.S. Special Forces, Loftus has demonstrated the ease with which false memories can be implanted into the human brain. “Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people,” she says.
Most of us think memory is when we remember a past event. We believe it “works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later,” summarized psychologists Dan Simons and Chris Chabris. In reality, memory is like putty; it can be molded by all who possess it. Therefore sad, painful memories can also be healed and you can learn how to let go of the past. You might have been in a situation where two people recall completely different “facts” about the same event. This occurs because of how a memory is reconsolidated in our brains. Every time we explicitly recall a memory, we are not remembering the event itself, but the last time we remembered that event.
“We learn, we store, we retrieve, and when we retrieve the next time, we are not retrieving the original experience—we are retrieving our last retrieval,” says Ledoux. “In other words, upon retrieval, a new memory is formed.” In his last line lies the secret to erasing memories and changing your past.
When you consciously go back in time to recall an event, the memory is summoned from your hippocampus, which works with the amygdala and other parts of your brain to remember your past.
The act of remembering alters the neural network of that memory, creating an entirely new structure of neural connections. So every time you think about a past event, the “reality” of that event changes, based on your current state of being, your current level of awareness, and the present conditions in which the memory is recalled. Since good and bad memories are formed by your conscious remembrance of them, not by the event itself, altering the conditions in your brain during recall can recreate the neuronal map of your memories and the stories they tell.
If you make yourself happy now and then travel back in time to a sad or painful memory, the joy you feel in the present will change the neurological formation of that sad event. By choosing your present state of being and then going into your past, you can begin to heal and erase these memories and change the effect the past has on you today.
For a while, Rachel’s past kept her imprisoned by fear. By first sending her into her desired future, Rachel was able to then travel back in time from an empowered place. Her state of being in the present delivered a wave of positive emotions into the neural network of that memory. Those emotions became the fuel that made her implicit memories explicit, allowing her to consciously change the impact and, in turn, the content of those events.
What this means for you is that your memories might not be true. But don’t let this information lead you to question and dwell on your past. That could drive anyone insane. Instead, use the malleability of memory to your advantage. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how “true” your past is. Memories function the way they do because all that matters is how your past helps drive you forward today.
As LeDoux explains, “The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past. Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.”
Memories come and go based on the “use it or lose it” principle of neuroplasticity. Self-awareness allows us to choose the kind of information we want to occupy neural real estate and erase memories we don’t want to store. Without it, the battle is lost to the implicit fears and stressors our ancient animal brain thinks it needs to keep us alive, and bad memories can take over.
The animal brain might be long overdue for an upgrade from the primitive lifestyle it is still accustomed to, but until that happens, we must activate our human brain to alter and heal the content of memory. Once we make the choice to consciously travel back in time from an empowered state, we must act quickly. We don’t have a lot of time to take the next step in changing our past.
In a study at NYU, Dr. Daniela Schiller and her team of researchers showed two groups of participants a random sequence of blue and yellow squares on a screen. On the first day of the experiment, group 1 and group 2 were both occasionally administered an electric shock when exposed to a blue square. Both groups developed a fear memory associating blue squares with pain. Our “associative memory” is constantly forming associations between the various elements that come together to form a memory, so that when one element is activated, it triggers the other as well.
On the second day, the researchers reminded both groups of their fear by exposing them to a blue square. Inevitably, the association they learned the previous day triggered a fear response in the participants’ brains, causing them to sweat at the sight of that dreaded blue square. With the painful fear memory now activated, the researchers left the room and returned to group 1 after a few hours. They then flashed a sequence of blue and yellow squares without administering a shock. They continued this until the group no longer feared the blue squares.
With group 2, the researchers returned after six hours and repeated the same procedure until they too no longer feared the blue squares. By exposing both groups to the source of their fear and removing the pain associated with it, they eliminated the fear response from automatically showing up in their brains.
On day three, the researchers once again showed both groups a blue square without a shock. This time, only group 1 showed no fear. Group 2 still remembered the association it had formed on day one and reverted back to that old fear response. “It was pretty astonishing,” said Dr. Schiller. “It had so many implications for why some therapies only work temporarily. The original idea was that you could forget a bad memory but you’d always have the original memory stored somewhere. The new theory is that memory can be updated, and there is a window in which this can be done.”
The researchers brought the participants back one year later, and their response was the same. Group 1 had permanently eliminated their fear of blue squares, while group 2 still remembered the pain accompanying the flash of a blue square. This six-hour window for altering and erasing a memory has been found to be present in rats as well.
What this means is that to change and let go of the past , we need to activate a memory from an optimistic present state and modify it within six hours, just as Rachel did. Your past helped shape the fears that keep you imprisoned in your present, so altering, healing, and erasing your memories is often a necessary step to move from fear to Fearvana. Let’s work on adapting your history to serve your present self and your future self.
Training Exercise: How to Erase Bad Memories
I want to make it clear that just because we are delving into the past doesn’t mean we all need therapy to thrive. The problem with many forms of therapy is that it takes you back in time from a very disempowered state in the present. Simply opening up your heart about the past doesn’t free you from it. When done incorrectly, the time traveling process only aggravates the stressors and fears caused by the very event that brought you to therapy in the first place. It reinforces the negative impact of that past event by creating an unpleasant association between the neural network of that memory and your current distressed state.
I experienced this first hand as a veteran diagnosed with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before I taught myself how to heal my brain using everything I am now teaching you in this book, I went to a therapist to overcome my psychological obstacles. I used to walk out of that office more miserable than when I walked in, and very often, I would drive straight to the liquor store.
My therapist told me this was a normal, even necessary, part of the process to heal past memories and wounds. Although I know he genuinely wanted to help, after learning the inner workings of the mind, I came to realize his approach was far from the truth. The methods below allowed me to finally find value in the guilt I felt over losing my friend in Iraq.
Another problem I found with therapy is that traveling back into the past is useless unless we use it to drive us forward. It is pointless to spend years on a therapist’s couch, analyzing and interpreting every second of your past, with no clarity as to what you want to gain from it. You don’t need to waste all that time.
We only need to delve into the past to the extent that it negatively affects who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow; otherwise, what difference does it make? Those moments are now over.
We can’t do anything to get them back or alter the actual events. All we can do is change and erase our memory if and when we need to.
Back toward the Future Exercise
In this exercise, our focus will be to travel back in time with the sole intention of aligning the events of our past with the future we want to step into.
Choose one of your goals where you are struggling to make progress. Choose something you think you are having a hard time with because of some subconscious force buried in an implicit painful memory.
Now write down or create a visual presentation of your accomplishments. Alternatively, if you are very clear on the future life you want to create, you can also visualize what it looks like.
More often than not, though, it is harder to imagine yourself in a situation you have never been in, as opposed to recalling one you have personally experienced. A past event has a neural network that incorporates your senses and your emotions, so it could have more of an impact to bring that into your awareness. But if you have a strong imagination and a proclivity for visualization, as Rachel did, feel free to bring your future self into your awareness as well. Either way works. The key for how to forget a bad memory is to ensure something positive is front and center of your awareness and you feel the impact of it. You can even do this by finding activities that bring you joy, like going for a run, and use them as tools to reframe your past.
Alice is a perfect example of someone who altered a traumatic past and healed and erased memories by infusing positivity into her life. “I don’t remember a period of more than a few days where it actually completely consumed me,” she said of her past. “I remember being able to find joy during those times in something, in my little cousins, in being outside, in movement… I’m really playful. I love to be outside, so being around that in other people was a reminder of what was real.” She never let her past consume her because she found avenues of joy to construct her desired reality.
Once you are focused on something empowering and feeling the favorable emotion deep within you, go back into your past to find find and erase the bad memory or the event keeping you from taking action to better your future. You might know what that event is ahead of time. If not, use all the awareness exercises in this book to get clear on where in your history you experienced a moment that created some disempowering belief about yourself or the world around you.
Keep the positive sensation in the foreground and allow the past event to glide behind it. “Have a positive experience be prominent in awareness while the painful one is sensed dimly in the background,” writes Dr. Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain.
This next step needs to be taken within six hours of activating the memory. If you follow along with this entire exercise on how to erase and heal memories, that shouldn’t be a problem, as you will flow seamlessly from the last step into this one. You have two options in this step. Use one or both of them, depending on what works best for you and what you need:
1. From that empowered place, choose a new meaning for the event. For example, although I am not proud of wasting a year and a half of my life with drugs, I now know that lifestyle also led me into the Marines, so I have no regrets. I haven’t forgotten the past, but I reframed it. You too probably won’t forget what happened to you, especially if it was emotionally charged, but you can let go of and move on from the impact that event has on you.
2. From that empowered place, search for examples in your past in direct contrast to the block you are currently experiencing. For example, someone I once worked with felt terrified of traveling to a new place by himself. Fear kept him from taking action to venture out of his home. To combat the fearful memory, he focused his attention on the past experiences when he mustered up the courage to engage strangers in conversation or wander through an unknown city alone. This exercise didn’t eliminate the fear the next time he traveled to a new country, but it gave him confidence to do what was needed to get on that plane.
Notice when the past event is holding you back and keep conditioning the new meaning to it and/or replacing it with the other event that contradicts it.
Keep a daily record celebrating positive experiences. This can be in the form of a gratitude journal or accomplishment log. I use a variation of both, depending on the events of the day. Because of negativity bias, our mind implicitly tends to focus only on the negative memories. In this step, we are becoming proactive about consciously directing our awareness only toward the positive.
Do whatever it takes to feel the positive emotion so it continuously plants itself into your memory. For example, a few days after permanently sobering up, I finished a run and sat on my lawn listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Paradise.” With the sun on my face, my puppy sitting beside me, and the serene sounds of the Boss seeping into my soul, I basked in the bliss of knowing I had finally become the person I always believed myself to be. The beauty of the moment was so intense, it brought me to tears. I will always remember the joy and freedom I felt in making the commitment to stop drinking. It became a new memory to engulf every other one that associated alcohol with pleasure.
The past is a part of who you are today, but it doesn’t have to keep you from molding your ideal future. Use this exercise to not only heal and erase bad memories but to leverage your past and make it work for you.
This article is excerpted with permission from Fearvana: The Revolutionary Science of How to Turn Fear into Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Akshay Nanavati.
About The Author
Akshay Nanavati is a Marine Corps veteran, adventurer, and entrepreneur. He has run ultra-marathons, climbed mountains in the Himalayas, and skied 350 miles across the world’s second-largest ice cap. To heal his brain after being diagnosed with PTSD as a result of seven months in Iraq, he spent years studying neuroscience, psychology, and spirituality. Today, Akshay runs a global business helping people live limitless lifestyles. His work helps fund his nonprofit, the Fearvana Foundation. Akshay has been featured in media outlets such as Forbes, Psychology Today, Fast Company, CNN, and Runners World. Visit his website: fearvana.com