Home > Cognitive Bias, Memory > Glory Days and Faded Heartbreaks: How Assessments of our Past Shape and Reflect Psychological Well-being in the Present.

Glory Days and Faded Heartbreaks: How Assessments of our Past Shape and Reflect Psychological Well-being in the Present.

Peaked in High School or remembering it better than it was?

Before I present you with a base level summary of our current understanding of the psychological phenomenon known as Fading Affect Bias (FAB) and its relation to the conceptual system of autobiographical memory–complete with the associated empirical support, of course–I would first like to overanalyze some Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Don’t worry; it will all make sense soon enough.

Don’t worry; it will all make sense soon enough. In the single, “Glory Days,” from Springsteen’s 1984 album Born in the USA, the song’s narrator recounts several interactions with local friends. In these conversations the people joyfully talk to the narrator about their reportedly glorious high school experiences (Springsteen). One way to interpret the song is by emphasizing how drastically different the characters’ assessments of their high school lives are from the narrator’s descriptions of their current circumstances. The common thread amongst the stories is a sense of importance and agency which is a natural result of the social status that their personal attributes and accomplishments obtained for them. This stand is stark contrast with the harsh realities of adult life with all of it’s feelings of opportunity lost. It is the age old tragedy of the one who “peaked in high school,” but without the implication that lack of personal responsibility is the source of their undesired outcomes. This bleak interpretation is understandable, especially considering Bruce once said himself that he has “spent [his] life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” (Wolff-Mann). In fact, a large portion of this particular album is focused on this theme. However, I would like to present a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of these self-reflective episodes, that is grounded in the Fading Affect Bias as it relates to autobiographical memories.

According to this interpretation of the lyrics, the characters’ positive interpretations of past events are not meant to portray a sense of disappointment in their failure to lead lives of equivalent success. Instead, I propose, the interpretations suggest a beneficial maintenance of positive emotional assessments of enjoyable memories and a decay in negative emotional assessments of troubling memories. The result of these two trends is an autobiographical memory store which is emotionally net positive. (Hitchcock, 2019). This is phenomenon is known as the Fading Affect Bias. The majority of research on FAB has been conducted in relation to the theoretical memory storage system known as autobiographical memory, which contains both the episodic and semantic memories that form the basis of our identity. They are both the events (episodic memories) and the self-descriptions (semantic memories) which one believes to define themselves. It is through this grounding of our sense of self that we are able to comprehend the ways in which we relate to the world and thus we act accordingly. (Marsh, 2019) 

Naturally, a bias which alters these memories over time would be expected to similarly alter the ways in which we assess questions about self-efficacy, self-worth, belongingness, the meaningfulness of our previous endeavours. Many cognitive therapies for depression focus on conscious efforts to challenge the validity of our existing answers to these questions through a careful analysis of evidence. For example, a patient who believes that they are deserving of the stagnation that they are currently experiencing in their career may be asked to gather-evidence that goes against this claim, such as their promptness in completing tasks and their capacity for creative problem solving. 

A study on autobiographical memory conducted by Hitchcock and colleagues explored the relationship between depression and a diminishment in efficiency for the broader evidence-gathering process of category fluency–the degree to which one can generate examples of a given category–specifically for the category of “positive memories” (Hitchcock et al., 2019). In line with findings on the Fading Affect Bias produced both the Hitchcock study and a separate study by Marsh and colleagues, which both demonstrated an association between increased depressive symptoms and the attenuation or even absence of FAB (Marsh et al., 2019), the discrepancy in category fluency between the positive and negative memory cues is also mitigated in clinically depressed individuals (Hitchcock et al., 2019). Category fluency is known to be associated with the strength of connections between various examples within a category. This could imply that the increased level of connectivity between distinct examples of positive events could in turn produce faster retrieval of positive memories and thus a higher baseline mood (Hitchcock et al, 2019). 

Hitchcock and colleagues explored the relationship between depression and category fluency, specifically for positive memories. Tests for category fluency measure one’s ability to recall examples of a given category (Hitchcock et al., 2019). In line with other findings on the Fading Affect Bias, which show an association between severity of depressive symptoms and diminishment of even disappearance of FAB (Marsh et al., 2019), the discrepancy in category fluency between the positive and negative memory cues is also mitigated in clinically depressed individuals (Hitchcock et al., 2019). Category fluency is known to be associated with the strength of connections between various examples within a category. This could imply that faster retrieval of positive memories could be achieved by strengthening the connections between these memories in order to improve baseline mood (Hitchcock et al, 2019).

A 2017 study by Muir and colleagues on the effects of interoceptive abilities and alexithymia on an individual’s degree of FAB might be best explained by comparing and contrasting two stories of failed relationships, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel and “If You See Her Say Hello” by Bob Dylan. Alexithymia is a disorder characterized by difficulty processing and expressing emotions. It has been shown to be negatively associated interoceptive awareness which is the ability to assess bodily states such as heart rate. This is consistent with the theory that emotional processing is guided by the interpretation of automatic physical responses to stimuli. For example, according to this theory, when you see something startling, your heart rate will increase before you even consciously analyze the threat. Your increased heart rate then influences the way you think about the circumstance. The implication of this finding is that non-alexithymics with high levels of interoceptive awareness are more capable of engaging in emotional regulation strategies such as public or private event rehearsal. This means that comprehension of their natural reactions assists their ability to place autobiographical memories in proper perspective. The data suggested that this may be especially relevant for the maintenance of our emotional assessments of positive memories (Muir et al., 2017). 

Benefits from the rehearsal of “sweet romantic teenage nights”

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” uses a mix of first and third person narration to present the story of a “doomed to fail” marriage between two high-school sweethearts. Following the famous “a bottle or red, a bottle of white” intro, the narrator assesses his current life situation positively and with great enthusiasm. This content assessment of the present is followed by even more enthusiastic stories about his long-past “sweet romantic teenage nights” (Joel, 1977) whose rose colored interpretation rivals any verse from “Glory Days” in positivity. As the song continues, marital problems arise, but since the song is presented from the perspective of a narrator looking back at the relationship from another point in the future, his perspective allows him to see these problems as inevitabilities. Although the statement “they parted the closest of friends” suggests that the breakup was amicable, both FAB and intuition would suggest that emotional hardship was likely more present at the time of separation than it is being described. According to an interpretation based on FAB, this was guided by a rehearsal of positive memories and a natural fading of negative ones, leaving a persistent yet constructive memory behind. 

Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past,
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast

Bob Dylan, being the media-averse contrarian that he is, denies that his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks is autobiographical in nature; however it is clearly, on some level, the product of his imminent divorce from his first wife Sara Dylan. In order to speculate about the narrator’s psychological processes without making claims about a real person, I will treat the narrator as a separate character in a free standing piece of art. On “If You See Her Say Hello” Dylan delivers a direct and sincere perspective on a recent heartbreak. Although the narrator is able to acknowledge the normalcy of such break-ups, the song primarily revolves around the private rehearsal of one particular event in his autobiographical memory, “the night [he] tried to make her stay.” He even directly says that “[he] replay[s] the past, [he] know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast” (Dylan, 1975). He is able to describe his emotions in a way that shows he is clearly not alexithymic; however, it is also apparent that he is uncomfortable with the strength and persistence of these emotions when he says that “either [he’s] to sensitive or else [he’s] getting soft.” (Dylan 1975). The fact that he never once mentions a positive memory from his relationship or a particular personality trait which he admired about his partner suggests that the persistent negative emotional assessment of the breakup prevents him from even intentionally accessing other memories, positive or otherwise, let alone rehearsing them in a way that promotes hope or closure. Instead he’s “just learned to turn it off” (Dylan, 1975). 

The characters from “Glory Days” almost certainly did not lead the idealized lives that they reminisce about over drinks with the narrator. Although the negative aspects of their young lives are not presented, even in the four minute fifteen second album version, they were certainly present (Springsteen,1984). In fact, research has shown that adolescence is a time in which we experience life with the strongest emotional interpretations of events, both positive and negative (Azab). It is almost certain that each of these characters did not complete four years of high school without any failed tests, gradual dissolutions of friendships, feelings of inadequacy in the face of internal or external expectations, cataclysmic fights with parents, seemingly insurmountable heartbreaks, or any multitude of other potentially embarrassing freak scenarios which inevitable arise in one form or another. They happened; they hurt; they felt real; they are still available in our memory in one form or another. Thankfully, they do not dwell at the surface of our consciousness waiting to be brought up by the slightest activation; they have been dealt with. Because of this interpretation they have something to be proud of, and “Brenda and Eddie will always know how to survive” (Joel, 1977). Accuracy be damned; FAB is a bias I will always cherish.

 

References

Azab, Marwa., Why Are Teens So Emotional? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201810/why-are-teens-so-emotional.

Dylan, B. (1975). If you see her say hello. On Blood on the tracks [record]. Minneapolis Minnesota: Columbia. (1974).

Hitchcock, C., Newby, J., Timm, E., Howard, R. M., Golden, A.-M., Kuyken, W., & Dalgleish, T. (2019). Memory category fluency, memory specificity, and the fading affect bias for positive and negative autobiographical events: Performance on a good day–bad day task in healthy and depressed individuals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi: 10.1037/xge0000617

Joel, B. (1977). Scenes from an Italian restaurant. On The stranger [record]. New York City: A & R Recording, Inc.

Marsh, C., Hammond, M. D., & Crawford, M. T. (2019). Thinking about negative life events as a mediator between depression and fading affect bias. Plos One, 14(1). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0211147

Muir, K., Madill, A., & Brown, C. (2016). Individual differences in emotional processing and autobiographical memory: Interoceptive awareness and alexithymia in the fading affect bias. Cognition and Emotion, 1–13. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2016.1225005

Springsteen, B. (1984). Glory days. On Born in the USA [record]. New York City: Columbia Records. (1982).

Wolff-Mann, E. (2014, June 30). 16 Bruce Springsteen Quotes For Your Very American Weekend. Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/gear/16-bruce-springsteen-quotes-to-start-your-very-american-week.

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