White Heron Sangha

Meditation and Memory

by Marianne Palmer

Articles in popular magazines reporting on meditation and memory often read “a new study shows…” Oversimplification, jumping to conclusions, and editors appeal to our confirmation bias, our preexisting belief that it is true. Consider this headline from the Berkeley Wellness Letter: 

Can Mindfulness Improve
Your Bad Memory?

New research suggests that mindfulness can change our brains and help with our short-term memory.


Full article:  https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_mindfulness_improve_your_bad_memory

When reading articles like this, it is important to consider what methods of “meditation” were used in each study, where it was done and originally published, how “improvement” was measured, and what IS “memory,” anyway?

If you ask a reputable scientist, the answer will be: No one knows exactly. We have evidence; we have theories; we have models. There is a difference between long term memory and short term memory, also called working memory. This difference suggests a process; not all short term memories become long term memories. Working memories are transformed over time into longer-lasting memories. Current thinking in the field favors this stage type model of memory function. Breaking up a complicated process into discrete steps allows investigation into different parts of the overall process, such as consolidation, storage, and retrieval.  These stages take place in the formation of both conscious and unconscious memories, called explicit and implicit memory.

If we believe meditating improves our memory, we may feel more motivation to keep practicing. As a non-lineage sangha, we have no problem accommodating varying styles of meditation. Many of us worry about our aging brains and fading memories; we want to lead healthy, happy lives. At White Heron Sangha, we practice whatever style of meditation we feel works best for us, individually. We may state our goals differently; some of us wish to calm down, to increase our ability to focus, or concentrate our awareness. We may practice observing choiceless awareness to gain insight into our mental habits. Mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) focuses on relaxing and calming the body and mind; and many meditation research protocols use methods derived from MBSR. If we add memory improvement to our list of intentions, goals and incentives, it may be helpful to keep in mind the overlap between emerging evidence about the changing nature of our memories and the lessons of Buddhism. 

Until age-related decline, perhaps, we assume the daily memories we rely upon are unchanging, dependable.  Maybe we imagine we have a nice, solid “memory bank,” something like a document or a photograph, or better yet, a movie. If we stop and think about it, of course, we know this cannot be true, because A) as Buddhists we believe Everything Changes, and  B) we are not static like a book or a film or a file drawer. We are living, breathing, aging animals. And if we had a memory “bank,” it might be financing our most tenacious illusion, a sense of having or being a solid, separate, unchanging self!

Whether we are aware of it or not, even our most cherished memories shift over time. These changes occur at all stages, including during the seemingly simple act of memory recall. We know our bodies are not the same as they were when we were infants, then children, then adolescents, then younger adults. We heard about neural networks, and the rhyme, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” But we need to understand this is not a case of hard-wiring, but one of continual change and tenuousness.

Imagine editing a text document. As you edit, your theme, hopefully, stays the same while the document itself is being reworked. Maybe it’s just being shortened and tightened for clarity, but we don’t pretend it hasn’t been changed. Our memories undergo a similar process as they filter out some details, embellish others, and select for meaning.  Bits of memory become arranged into a coherent narrative. As in the series "Tidy Up With Marie Kondo," advocating we keep only what we most need and use on a daily basis, our memories go through a similar, though unconscious, process. Memories shift during the editing and clarifying process, producing neater, tidier, more memorable images and stories.

There are two thought experiments helpful for gaining insight into how memory normally works. The first involves imagining a ship famous in Ancient Greece and preserved by the Athenians for thousands of years. As each plank of the old ship rots over time, it is replaced with a new wooden plank. The original structure is thus preserved. After every bit of wood in the old ship has been replaced, is it the same ship?

Now, imagine playing the Telephone Game. Players form a circle, the first player whispers a message into the ear of the second person, who repeats it to the third and so on down the line. We all know that the message reported by the last person often barely resembles what the first player actually said. Now imagine each cell in a neural network as a person playing the Telephone Game and it is easy to see how a message--or a memory-- changes over time.

Do we really believe our cherished memories of childhood are the same as was our original experience? If so, we wouldn’t know the difference between an experience and a memory of that experience. The sense of knowing where a particular memory originated is called source memory. And just like all other types of memory, it is subject to changes over time. It is not uncommon, for instance, for children to believe they have memories of family incidents--only to learn later they hadn’t even been born yet.  Family stories, like family photographs, can become confused with actual firsthand experience.

As our bodies grow and age, our cells continually replace worn out parts, just like with the planks of the ancient Greek ship. Do you think the repaired neural planks in the networks holding our memories remain the same over time?  Is it still the same ship? If not, then how about a message whispered on down the Telephone line of aging neurons in a neural network?

It may be shocking to think we can’t trust our memories even before age-related decline sets in. The assumption of a solid, separate memory bank has great appeal, almost as great, perhaps, as our notions of identity, individuality and self.  Call to mind legal injustices due to sincere eyewitness testimony--that simply wasn’t accurate, wasn’t true. Victims’ memories may become contaminated, however unwittingly, by exposure to police lineups. Such “false memories” are not the same as “false testimony;” they are not intentional lies by bad people for nefarious reasons. We all inadvertently develop “false memories” over the long course of our lives.

In your mind’s eye, call up a photograph from your childhood. How might your memory of that time and place have been influenced by the snapshot? Imagine the difference between an original picture and a photocopy. Now compare it to how a photocopy of the photocopy of the photocopy might look (before the digital age). Trouble comes because we think we can determine the source of our memories after unintended changes cause us to be mistaken. Photographs can cue up memories, yes, but activation of a neural network calls up the memory of a memory of a memory. 

“Information is being misrepresented. Memories are not retrieved from long-term memory always in the same way and with the exact same information. Healthy individuals tend to systematically confabulate details about their personal lives. But it is likely beneficial because the purpose of the memory system is not only to store information, but also to make sense of the past in insightful ways. Metaphorically speaking, triggering memories is more like opening the door to a large storage room rather than neatly retrieving specific information from a file in your desk drawer.”   https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-consciousness/201511/consciousness-and-memory

Bits of information from which memories derive are gathered from our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Some ancient Buddhist teachings, however, wisely indicate six "sense doors.” The sixth door is our minds, home to our memories. Most Buddhists might agree that memories arise from our brains, even when we don’t all agree that our minds arise from our brains. Some of us practice watching just how often our minds change during a single meditation sit. “Everything changes” includes our minds, brains, and memories. Today, we call this “neural plasticity.”

fMRI evidence of lifelong neural plasticity supports the idea that--for better or worse--our human brains are, indeed, always changing. In the same way Buddhism teaches us how labile our minds are, science teaches us how labile our memories are. This gives us hope that we might be able to change old habits and develop newer, healthier ones. But in changing our habits, we are also changing our memories. Be careful about what you think you remember. Know how susceptible to influence your memories are. Sometimes the source of a memory has been our own minds. Be willing to check outside sources and correct mistakes hiding inside your memories. Most importantly, have compassion for those suffering more memory confusion than you are ... at the moment.

If you want more:



False memories and meditation:


Meditation and the brain:




Effects of different types of meditation:


Next article - Summer 2019

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