The clue to better mental health is in our memory

"There is no such thing as a Psychiatric disease" — Fred Baughman

For a long time now, the “chemical imbalance” theory was used to explain depression. The concept attributed all “abnormal” swings in our mood to certain brain chemicals present in less than optimal amounts. The solution then was to balance these brain chemicals using anti-depressants.

Researchers have severely questioned this theory in recent times. According to the Behavioural Shutdown theory, depression is basically a reaction of our minds believing that any action that we take will just bring more pain.

“Our belief that we are powerless to solve our problems is the true cause of depression”, Dr.Alex Lickerman, author of The Ten Worlds

So, by choosing goals and actions we believe in — can we win depression? Yes, but a big part of believing in ourselves and our goals is dependent on the “meaning” we seek to achieve in life.


What is life without meaning? Let’s imagine a world where there is no meaning. In this world, we live day to day, one moment to another with no overarching purpose. We get up every day, with no specific agenda other than just looking for food, shelter, and sex. There is no theme connecting our intentions and actions to the future or the past.

It seems great, isn’t it? But, can we even live like this?

source: Timo Kuilder — Illustrator

The Past and Future Conundrum Neuroscientists and psychologists say that perception of the past and the future is one of the most unique nature of human cognition. There is a growing science of psychology called “Prospective Psychology” that focuses on this specific aspect of the human mind.

source: We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment

More so, recent brain research shows that our memory is not a recording device like a tape-recorder. Our memory encodes each event and experience in life with a bad or good value. This value is called Valence. Valence defines our perspective about an event and guides our decision making.

This aspect of memory is not unique to humans. Rats have this as well. The difference is that human brains can re-define how memory encodes the experience. A rat’s definition of positive and negative events is based on its’ experience — electric shock is pain, sugar treat is pleasure. But humans can re-define a painful event as good and a pleasurable event as bad. How?

Memory uses meaning to organise itself We have all been there. A horrible romantic experience becomes “funny” and even an important learning event, later in life. A crazy adolescent moment becomes “something I could have avoided” in old age!

We reminisce and imagine to make sense of the world

What an experience means to us depends a lot on its’ impact on our future. This relationship is what gives an experience a “meaning”. Events that can affect our future goals become important events in history. Actions that can affect our future goals become meaningful actions.

By looking at our environment, we consistently learn what is useful and what is not. We then use this information to affect the valence of our experiences. Our ability to act increases if we see there is a “meaning” to it. If we see there is a chance to succeed in our goals, we will take that chance.

The power to edit valence We are meaning-creating beings. We are similar and different based on the meaning we chase. We care how our past and present combined can affect our meaning in life. Stories have such an important place in our lives because of their relevance to meaning. “Meaning” is nothing but a story that connects to us deeply. What we do every moment is tell stories about ourselves and the world.

We are “meaning-making” machines Making meanings out of experiences is how we operate. It’s the core of our existence. In a way, we can affect our future by affecting our past. We can have a better future, by putting a better meaning to our past. This meaning improves our chances of being happy.

"Our ability to absorb experiences and use these experiences to predict the future — is the core of human cognition"

We need a “meaning” to define our actions — to string yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows together. Without a “meaning” to tie our past and future together, we don’t know what to do with our memory and imagination anymore.

"It will be absolute chaos to have a mind that can perceive the past and the future but has no meaning"

How to find meaningful actions? Meaning is not just a story that we tell ourselves to justify our actions. Meaning is a story around our life that connects our actions, experiences, and intelligence. It’s a story that triggers an emotional response within us.

"Meaning is a structure our memory uses to manage our past, present, and future"

We prioritise actions based on the meaning it generates around our past, present, and future.

We are not just going for movies with our spouses — we are taking time out for the relationship. We are not just working — we are making an impact, we are putting food on the table for our families, we are changing the world. We are not just having a beer with friends — we are socialising, we are taking time out for ourselves, we are taking a “mental health” break. Every action of ours has more energy and vitality if it is part of a bigger meaning.

Meaning is the fundamental way our memory operates If there is no meaning to our actions then there is no connection between what we do and our goals. Such a life situation exacerbates the conflict within us. We lose interest in doing and end up having no energy to do anything whatsoever. This is the major source of mental health challenges faced by us today.

Helping people find meaning in their lives should be the priority of our Work, Health and Educational systems if we are to solve the crisis we find ourselves in.


  1. There is no such thing as a Psychiatric disease/disorder/chemical imbalance

  2. Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control

  3. An Examination of Relations Among Working Memory, ADHD Symptoms, and Emotion Regulation

  4. Working Memory Training Improves Emotion Regulation Ability

  5. Storytelling, depression, and psychotherapy

  6. Imagined and possible selves — the story we tell ourselves