What Makes A ‘Core Memory’?

Core memories” aren’t a real concept in neuroscience or in mental health. Instead, the idea was made famous by the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” in which core memories are described as “a super important time in [someone’s] life” and a memory that “powers a different aspect of [someone’s] personality.”

In the real world, the idea of core memories remains in the cultural zeitgeist way beyond the film. Now, TikTok videos of special moments are frequently shared using #corememory, while parents of little kids are often heard noting what experiences they hope are a “core memory” for their child.

When asked why this phrase resonates with people, Anthony Quarles, a therapist at Quarles Counseling in Virginia Beach, said it comes down to nostalgia for the good old days.

“As we grapple with uncertain times, people seem to want to go back to when things felt safer, easier or simpler for them,” he said, adding that life has been more challenging lately as we continue to live through the COVID pandemic.

Additionally, Nicole Dudukovic, director of the neuroscience major at the University of Oregon, said research suggests that memories don’t actually contribute much to our personalities — people who have amnesia don’t experience a personality change — but memories do “contribute to our sense of identity.” Meaning that many people view their memories as something that has changed them in some way.

Memories are flawed, which makes them a challenge in neuroscience and mental health.

You may have a good memory, but there is no such thing as a perfect memory — memories are inaccurate, both experts said.

According to Dudukovic, “in the memory world, we don’t really think about specific, special memories that are really formative for people. That’s true for a lot of reasons. A lot of those ‘core memories’ are things that may have happened in childhood, and there’s actually a lot we don’t remember from our childhood.”

Beyond that, memories can change from the time we are kids to when we are adults, Dudukovic said. “There’s this idea [that] every time we’re remembering something, it’s this reconstructive process where our memories are actually changing … so as we’re remembering, we’re changing our memories.”

So, the idea that you’re able to just retrieve memories from years ago doesn’t match up with the science of memory. While you are getting a picture of your past through these memories, you aren’t getting the full story.

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Moments and events that bring out strong emotional responses will likely be remembered more frequently than mundane days.

Events tied to strong emotions are more likely to be remembered.

There’s a reason why moments of extreme happiness or intense anxiety may feel etched in your brain. According to Dudukovic, events that elicit an emotional response are often turned into memories.

“There’s a lot of evidence to show that emotional events are more likely to be remembered overall than things [that] are more neutral or less emotionally [charged], but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re remembered more accurately,” Dudukovic said.

Quarles added that through a mental health lens, emotionally driven memories may return to you when that particular emotion comes up again. So, if you feel extreme excitement ahead of an upcoming party, your mind may go back to the last time you felt excitement.

“Core memories” aren’t always happy ones.

While the videos using the core memories hashtag on TikTok often showcase euphoric moments, Quarles stressed that “our core memories aren’t necessarily happy memories.” They can also be a sad, fearful or angry ones.

What’s more, core memories can also be traumatic, which “are long-lasting memories for a lot of people,” Quarles said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traumatic events are “marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury or the threat of serious injury or death.” So, this could be anything from a car accident to an assault to the sudden loss of a loved one. Signs that your memory is associated with trauma could be nightmares after you encounter a trigger or think of the event, avoiding activities that remind you of the memory or having flashbacks of the traumatic experience.

Of course, not all memories associated with a negative emotion are trauma. But if that is the case, it’s worth getting professional help. There are many resources for mental health support, including the Psychology Today database and Therapy for Black Girls.

There are a few actions you can take to create core memories.

“It’s really hard to predict what you will remember, but there are certain things that … help make these memories stick and last longer,” Dudukovic said.

It all comes down to how you’re processing these moments, she said. “Are you thinking about them a lot? Are you thinking [about them] in a deep, meaningful way?”

Intentionally thinking about moments that you hope will turn into memories — and even rehearsing them in your head — can help make them more likely to become memories, Dudukovic added.

You can also try using retrieval cues, which are tools that help you access memories. “The idea is that if you were listening to [a] song while you were on vacation, it becomes connected to your memories of the vacation,” she explained, “and then later when you hear that song again, it serves as a cue that allows you to retrieve those memories from the vacation.”

Pictures can also be used as a memory retrieval cue when you take time to think about the pictures you’re looking at and the moment they depict, she added.

Having more ways to access memories and connect them to physical things can only help you retrieve them as time passes, she said.