Why memories matter for the well-being of police officers

When negative emotions and memories become the norm they program us to expect the negative and distrust the positive


Our memories and experiences shape who we are, our personality and worldview, and how we think of and relate to others. Unfortunately, it is easy to focus on the negative and discount the positive - to our detriment. Choosing positive experiences to offset the negative is within our power.

How much of who we are is dictated by the sum of our memories? How do they shape us in terms of personality and worldview, to what we aspire, and how we think of and relate to others?

While there are certainly biological imperatives imprinted in our DNA that are both species-specific and individually unique that direct us, understanding of the influence of nurture on nature has grown tremendously with cutting-edge research into human psychology, and part of our “nurtured” selves are the memories we select to hold on to.

How Memory Works
Deep within each of our brains, tucked up under the cerebral cortex, lies the hippocampus. Part of the limbic system, this relatively small structure consisting of two separate but connected hippocampi located one on each hemisphere of the brain and working in concert with other structures (more on that in a bit) plays a vital role in how we select, organize, and consolidate information to transform certain memories from short-term to long-term.

This is a constant and ongoing process but a great deal of the hippocampus’s heavy lifting is done while we sleep. While the restorative importance of sleep for the brain and body is well-acknowledged and understood, research is showing the importance of sleep in preparing the body to receive new information and allowing the mind to encode and incorporate learned information and experiences in the form of lasting memory. The hippocampus is central to this and one of its most important jobs is choosing which memories to keep and deleting the rest.

Most short-term memories are relegated to the dust heap within a few days — the brain holds on to them only as long as needed or until it is clear they are unimportant, then they are permanently scrapped. Here’s an example most cops can relate to: While patrolling you hear a radio call for a theft that just occurred in an adjacent beat. The suspect is described as a mid-20s white male wearing a gray hoodie, with a scruffy beard, and driving an older red Buick with a large dent in the driver’s door.

“Hey,” your brain shouts as you reach for the mic and pull a U-turn, “We just saw that car turn left onto Hillside Road three minutes ago!”

Your mind — while switched into “patrol function” — unconsciously logged that old Buick (along with a lot of other things) into a short-term memory file. An hour later you’d have forgotten it entirely but, being contemporaneous to the call, you were able to recall something you didn’t even know you’d noticed. There are countless other minor memories we collect every day like this that we simply have no room for and will be deleted in hours or days.

The long-term memories selected and filed by the hippocampus are different, and generally fall under one of two categories. The first are data-driven, consciously collected and detail-oriented. Sometimes called declarative or explicit memory, these are the “classroom” memories of the facts we determine are important and work to memorize. The second are emotional memories, those experiences that trigger response in the amygdala, another part of the limbic system that partners with the hippocampus on matters of emotion and memory. Also known as procedural or implicit memory, they are less fact-based and more experiential. They are also the most durable long-term memories as they are remembered for both the emotions they create and the details attached.

Think back to a couple common high school memories: learning trigonometry (explicit memory) and learning how to kiss (implicit memory). Which do you most remember today?

Why Memories Matter
Well, that’s all very nice, but what does it have to do with police work? A lot actually, and you should consider what it has to do with you personally.  

Emotionally impactful memories – both positive and negative – are the ones most likely to be retained long term, and this brings us back to the two questions asked at the outset of this article.

How much of who we are is dictated by the sum of our memories?

How do they shape us in terms of personality and worldview, to what we aspire, and how we think of and relate to others?

Law enforcement is a memory-rich environment, with a good many of them are firmly in the “negative” column. Of course, many cops do experience policing as largely positive, with treasured memories, close friendships forged in the trenches, laughter, and a distinguished body of work. That’s not to dismiss the ugliness they’ve seen, it’s just held in perspective. These officers are doing it right.

But a lot — maybe the majority, even — have lost touch with idealism, their sense of value and doing good, or even that life as a cop is anything but frustration. They are constantly on the defensive on the street and in the station, fearing bosses and politicians more than they do criminals, and an accumulation of negative emotional memories has soured their perspective even away from work. When idealism fades it’s not a cold pragmatism that fills the void, it is anger and cynicism.

Negative emotions are extremely powerful, creating nearly indelible memories. Worse, when they become the norm they program us to expect the negative, distrust the positive, and take our low expectations outside of work to infect our personal lives. If who we are is, in fact, dictated by the sum of our memories, then who we are might just be an angry, fatalistic cynic with a personality and worldview shaped to reflect it. For these officers isolation, depression, anxiety, and broken relationships are the common result.

How others think of and remember you is tied mainly to the emotions you evoke in them. How do you want to be thought of? What legacy do you want your career and life to reflect? How well do you represent the profession and your brother and sister officers? In the face of so much criticism of law enforcement in general and cops in particular, will the people you know and serve be able to say, “Well, Officer ________ isn’t like that. S/he’s always treated me with respect and professionalism,” or are you “just another a**hole cop” who reinforces the stereotype that haunts us? This should be especially poignant as you think how you want those closest to you — spouses/partners, kids, friends and family — to think of you and the memories you want to give them.

Making Positive Memories
Police officers have little control over what they experience at work or ability to limit negative emotional memories they experience — dealing with such things is the literal summation of the job description. You can manage how you frame the memories and integrate them into your experience bank, however.

Consciously maintaining healthy perspective is one of the most valuable skills emotionally healthy cops practice. Another is actively seeking experiences that create positive memories to offset the negative in order to create balance.

Negative emotional memories form naturally and without being sought out; traumatic events, poor treatment by supervisors or administration, combative arrestees, and run-of-the-mill frustrations in our personal and professional lives are inevitable and lead to negative emotional memories. To offset them we have to be deliberate in seeking out positive emotional memories, being mindful of our present in order not to lose the experiences we have, and practice reframing the meaning and impact of negative experiences. Let’s look at each of these three things in detail:

1. Create Positive Emotional Memories
Our memories of negative events are easily made and tend to stick around, so much so we begin to isolate, expect the worst, and obsess over all that is wrong to the exclusion of even looking for that which is good. It is critical to break this self-destructive habit. Instead, seek out experiences that are fun, unique, and novel.

Maximize your time off with friends and family, travel, take up new hobbies and dust off old ones. Volunteer, coach kids, or moonlight in a job far removed from police work, with people who aren’t cops or somehow tied to the law enforcement world. Take a class or even work toward a degree or certification, or maybe teach something yourself if you have skills or knowledge others would want to learn.

The point is to go out and create positive emotional memories rather than wait for them to find you.

2. Be Mindful of Your Present
Mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis” (Merriam-Webster). Though commonly associated with yoga and meditation, you need not be an experienced yogi or limit it to dedicated meditation time.

By practicing mindfulness you learn to lose the noise of what has happened (and how it affected you) and what will happen (and the distraction that carries) and focus on the present, appreciating the moment you are in. And, true, sometimes that moment sucks, but sometimes it is awesome. The problem with constantly focusing on the regrets and frustration of the past and worries about the future is we miss the great, funny, fascinating, and heartening things occurring right now.

3. Reframe Meaning and Impact of Negative Experiences
Great bosses build great environments, and I’ve worked for some outstanding leaders for whom I’d walk through fire. The bizarre truth, though, is I’ve learned as much or more about human behavior, organizational dynamics, and leadership from some of the biggest managerial disasters to ever grind morale into dust. And I appreciate the lessons they taught me about how not to manage people.

Finding silver linings is a challenging skill to learn, but mastery of it is its own reward. That is not to say you should wallow in a bad situation, or accept the unacceptable if you have power to change it, but learning to seek meaning or lessons is a gift you can give yourself.

Law enforcement is a memory rich environment. Take responsibility for managing the memories you take away and how you allow them to impact you.

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