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You Can't Change the Past, But You Can Rewrite Your History

Research shows the benefits of using imagery to rescript your past memories.

Egor Fomin/Shutterstock
Source: Egor Fomin/Shutterstock

So-called haunting memories can trouble people for years and, in some cases, can contribute to the symptoms of depression. Recall an experience in which you lost a friend, were in an accident, or were fired from a job that you loved. Try as you might, you just can’t shake off that memory.

For people who have a diagnosable depressive disorder, those indelible memories of the past only contribute to their negative views of themselves in the present, and carry well into their foreseeable future. What if those negative memories of the past could somehow be revised in consciousness? You can’t change the actual events themselves, but perhaps you can look at them differently and in a more adaptive manner for your feelings of well-being.

Steffen Moritz and colleagues (2018), of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (Germany), tested the effectiveness of “imagery rescripting” on people with diagnosed depressive disorders. According to Moritz and his colleagues, there is a “human desire to change the past for the sake of a better future” (p. 74). In imagery rescripting, you “edit negative memories via imagination,” which leads to a “happy ending” as you send your adult self back to the time of the bad experience in an effort to “comfort or defend” yourself (p. 74). You don’t actually erase that memory, but you store it away in a revised fashion that competes with, and hence weakens, the power of the original memory. Through positive mental imagery, you can feel more in control, less helpless, and less despairing about yourself and your life.

The German researchers believe that imagery’s powerful ability to revise and thus negate bad memories stems in part from the fact that your memories are often perceptual. In other words, you don’t just think about the bad event, you see it in your mind’s eye. Those images serve to increase the impact of whatever words you attach to the memory. Imagery rescripting (called “IR”) is a therapeutic approach shown to work when provided in psychotherapy, but Moritz et al. believed that people could be taught to use it on themselves, an idea that had never been tested. In this study, the authors compared the effectiveness of two versions of a self-help manual (one longer than the other) by randomly assigning people with diagnosed depression to one of those intervention groups or a wait-list control group (who would later receive the treatment).

Recruiting from a potential sample of 920 patients at the university’s medical center, Moritz and his colleagues were then able to test their approach on a final sample of 127 patients randomly assigned to one of the three groups (99 actually completed the entire study). The intervention manuals (with 3,369 words in the short version and 4,949 words in the long) began by explaining its scope and the basis for the intervention. Before moving on to the intervention itself, participants were advised to seek face-to-face treatment if their symptoms involved dissociation or were due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Next, participants saw a famous painting by the artist René Magritte of a pipe, accompanied by the words “this is not a pipe.” In other words, the painting of a pipe is not really the pipe itself. Thus, “one needs to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined” (p. 77).

This fascinating introduction, showing that there’s a distinction between actual objects and the images that represent those objects, led next to a discussion of the fallibility of memory. In a visual version of a famous experiment on false memories, the researchers showed a picture of a typical beach scene that, importantly, didn’t have a ball or blanket. However, most people when recalling the items in this picture falsely remember that there were these two common seaside-related objects. Now that the researchers planted these questions regarding whether your perceptions and memory can actually be trusted or not, they went on in the manual to get to the heart of the intervention.

The rewriting of past memories occurred through a form of “time travel,” in which participants received the instruction to imagine a negative event from their childhood and then to “enter the scene, and protect or comfort their younger self” (p. 77). They were told to bring that negative event to a happy closing, such as preventing an accident before it happened or, in another example, continuing to give a talk rather than shut down due to anxiety. In this imaginary journey, they could turn themselves into a fictitious compassionate person (such as a Harry Potter character), or even become able to fly if necessary. The point of this exercise was to mix the new and improved version of the past into the memory of the actual and unhappy one.

The most fascinating exercise in the self-help manual took these imaginary reinventions even further. Participants were instructed to imagine an ugly image (such as a “blob-fish,” as the authors called it), and then to convert that image step-by-step into one that is beautiful or that allowed them to experience pride (such as a tiger). During the “metamorphosis,” participants were instructed to straighten their posture, so that they too could feel more beautiful. Another metamorphosis involved words. Participants were told to start with a negative label they might apply to themselves (such as “idiot”) and convert it to one that would allow them to feel good about themselves (“I did it”).

The final piece of the therapeutic intervention took advantage of the findings from cognitive psychology about thought suppression. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “white bear” exercise in which you’re told not to think about a white bear, but then find yourself unable not to think of a white bear. Instead of shutting down their negative images or thoughts, participants were encouraged to morph them into happier and more pleasant ones.

Comparing the three experimental groups, the authors found that the IR method was indeed successful in reducing depressive symptoms over the course of a six-week period, but only when given in the long form. Furthermore, the intervention did not help to alleviate anxiety, and it was more effective in people who had a greater number of depressive symptoms, said that they wanted to change, and also went into the intervention with positive expectations.

The authors concluded that although “we cannot change the past,” the IR method showed that people could find ways to unglue themselves from their negative associations with past events. Standard cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing people’s thoughts to change their emotions, and the IR method would be compatible with this approach as well, focusing on the visual rather than the verbal.

To sum up, the next time you find yourself sifting through your images of the events in your past that cause you to feel regret or sadness, this reinvention of the past method might just be what you need. Encourage yourself to challenge not only your assumptions about yourself and your past, but even the visual memories, and you’ll be on your way to a more fulfilling future.

LinkedIn image: AnikonaAnn/Shutterstock


Moritz, S., Ahlf-Schumacher, J., Hottenrott, B., Peter, U., Franck, S., Schnell, T., & ... Jelinek, L. (2018). We cannot change the past, but we can change its meaning. A randomized controlled trial on the effects of self-help imagery rescripting on depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 10474-83. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.02.007

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