Why We Romanticize the Past

Then there’s the simple fact that most of us prefer reminiscing about positive experiences, which gives us “preferential access” to those memories, Dr. Schacter explained. In other words, aspects of the past that we enjoy thinking about tend to stick with us over time, while elements we don’t think about fade away. Researchers call this retrieval-induced forgetting. “This may contribute to a positive memory bias because we tend not to rehearse, rehash and retrieve negative experiences,” Dr. Schacter added. Traumatic memories, which are often intrusive and persistent, are the notable exception.

Our general tendency to recall positive memories over negative ones is especially pronounced when we feel discomfort in the present. That’s because the process of recalling the past is always dictated by “the perspective that we’re coming in with and the questions we’re asking about the past,” Dr. Wilson said. She called this our “current lens.”

Your current lens acts as a kind of filter, determining what details you dredge up and what you make of them. Living amid a deadly pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we’re all primed with some degree of collective nostalgia as a baseline. “If we start out with the hypothesis that things were better in the past, then we’ll pull out memories to confirm that,” Dr. Wilson said.

Part of this has to do with what researchers call “mood repair” — doing what we can to lift ourselves up when we’re feeling down. “Memory isn’t just there to help us remember where the car is parked,” Dr. de Brigard said. “It also plays other roles, and one of them is to help us feel better.”

None of this is incidental — autobiographical memory has evolved this way for good reason.

In her research, Dr. Wilson found that we manipulate our personal memories to create a coherent identity and favorable sense of self over time.

This may mean embellishing our memories with imaginative elements, or omitting details we’d rather not dwell on. “We know that memory and imagination interact enormously,” Dr. de Brigard said. “We often imagine ways in which the past could’ve happened. Then our imagination penetrates the original memory and modifies the content.”

While the malleable quality of our memory makes it vulnerable to manipulation, and error, it’s also a real adaptation of the human mind. “Recalling past positive events is an adaptive way to regulate emotion in the present and enhance optimism about the future,” Dr. Schacter said.

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