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How You Can Rewrite the Brain’s Memory When Saying I’m Sorry

Social Writing Tips

brain's memory rewrite

Open Mouth… insert foot.

We’ve all said things and done things that have hurt others.

What if there was a way to reach back in time and somehow alter the painful memory of an event?

Want to know the mental technique that could rewrite the way a friend or family member recalls a past hurtful event?  How to lessen the emotional scars of something you did?

It’s easy… if you know the mental cue that triggers the brain to unlock a memory for editing.

How the Brain Rewrites the Past

Our brain can edit memories!

Researchers at Northwestern University set out to discover if past memories could be rewritten with new information.

The published research article in The Journal of Neuroscience is a little overwhelming, but quite revealing.

Here’s the nuts-and-bolts version of the research:

Phase 1

Researchers asked participants to study and remember the location of an apple that had been placed over a picture of a landscape scene.



Phase 2

Next, participants were divided into either an Active or Passive recall group.

Passive Recall


This group used a computer mouse to drag the image of the apple and place it in a new predetermined location. Participants were told where to place it. No thinking or recall required.

Active Recall


This group was told to use the computer mouse to drag the image of the apple into its original location from memory. Participants had to remember the previous location of the apple.

Result: more times than not, the Active Recall group got it wrong (keep this bit of information for later).

Phase 3

All participants were presented with a landscape image and asked to remember the original location of the apple from the first picture.


Here are the results

Those in the Passive Recall group were more likely to correctly recall the original location of the apple.  Since their original memory was not actively engaged in phase 2, their memory of the apple’s location remained unchanged – write an “I’m sorry card this way, and nothing changes.

Now, here’s what’s interesting:

Those in the Active Recall group were more likely to move the apple to the new WRONG location.

The research conclusion?

The active recall of the memory during Phase 2 of the experiment opened the original memory for editing.  Their subsequent incorrect placement of the apple had overwritten the old memory of the apple’s location.

If you want to change the memory of an event, you must actively engage the original memory.  Active engagement opens the memory for editing.  This gives you the opportunity to overwrite the old memory with new experiences.

Now that we know it’s possible to change what people think they remember, we have a basis for writing an “I’m Sorry” card that can actually make a difference.  That can rewrite history.

You can now make up for something stupid you did or something you regret saying.

But, you’ve got to correctly activate their memory of the original event to do it.

Here’s how.

Writing for Memory Activation

They’ll likely never forget what happened.

But you can help change how they now feel about what happened.  You can start exchanging new, better experiences, for the older painful one.

Your goal in writing is to help them actively recall what happened.  Once you’ve helped them reopen the memory, the healing process can begin.

Like with the memory of the location of an apple, in order to overwrite an old memory with a new one, you’ve got to have the person actively engage with you and the memory.

Seems complicated.  But you can pull it off.

You can even do it with a short handwritten note.

Use these three memory triggers to unlock and edit the experience.

1. Activate the Event

Tell them where you were when it happened.

Be specific.  Help them remember.  You don’t have much room to write, so stick to the facts.

“Robin, remember last week when you and I went out for dinner at your favorite restaurant?  We had a big fight.  Normally we have such a good time.”

Notice what I did?

  • I had her recall the location.
  • I acknowledged what happened. I just left off the details of the hurt.
  • I had her imagine and connect with other positive experiences she’s had there.

You want active recall of the memory, but make sure to quickly redirect to a positive.

2. Overwrite the Hurt

Don’t dwell on the pain.

You need to state what happened or what you said that caused the pain.  Then, quickly move their attention to the new experience.

You can now say what you should have said.  Apologize.  Say you’re sorry.  Rewrite new words and actions into the old memory.

“I completely blew off your excitement about your promotion at work.  I was all about me that night.


I’m sorry.  You deserve that promotion.  I should have told you how great you’re going to be in your new role.  That you’ll make the company better.  Your dedication, hard work, and leadership is going to revolutionize the place.”

Here’s what I did:

  • Took responsibility for what I did.
  • Used the words “I’m sorry”.
  • Quickly redirected to the positive, about her
  • Projected good things for the future

Mention the hurt.  But focus on what should have happened.  What you should have said or done instead.

This helps to overwrite some of the hurt.

But you’ll need to go a little further to really get at the heart of the matter.

3. Replace the Emotion

This part is tricky.

You’ve got to present new emotions without activating the original emotions.

Remember, the focus is on replacing the hurt with good.  Engage the original hurt and you’ll actually reinforce it.  And no one wants that.

How do you present new feelings in a way that won’t backfire?

Let me finish my sample “I’m sorry” note and we’ll dissect the technique.

“I know I hurt you the other night Robin, but I’m so proud of you!  You must be feeling super excited about this wonderful opportunity.  Does your heart beat faster when you think of yourself as a successful leader?


I’ll bet the team is thrilled with your promotion and can’t wait for you to lead them to success as well.I’m overflowing with pride to show you off and brag about your promotion at the dinner party next week!”

Notice that I mention the past hurt in passing.  Then, quickly start building new, more positive emotional connections.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Acknowledge the emotional hurt.  Use a safe, neutral word –  “I hurt you”.
  2. State how you feel.  Use a good emotionally positive word – “I’m proud of you”.
  3. Insert a new, positive feeling for them.  Connect emotion to something positive – “You must be… super excited.”
  4. Explain how others agree with you.  Give an example – “The team is thrilled”.

The healing process has begun.

If you want to really influence their memory of the event, here’s an easy-to-use advanced technique:  Take them back to where it happened and this time, do it right.

Role play.  Call a mulligan.

Do overs work! They can help you solidify newer experiences in the neural pathways that store long-term memories.

Humans would rather remember happy thoughts than dwell on hurtful ones.

Give them new, happy thoughts and emotions to focus on and the pain of that other event will lessen in their mind.

Let’s Review

Be confident.

Now you can write and mail an “I’m Sorry” card that actually helps heal the pain.

Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Activate the memory of where it happened.
  2. Say you’re sorry while overwriting with new supportive examples.
  3. Substitute new positive emotions into the experience.

Keep these steps handy.

You never know when you may need them to rewrite a regretful experience.


Flickr creative commons image courtesy of Health Blog.

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