April 25, 2009

Positive memories are building blocks of desirable future scenarios

The solution-focused approach helps to build a bridge between success in the past and success in the future. The following two questions play a leading role in this process: 1) How do you want things to become? (success in the future), and 2) When were things already going well? (success in the past). Often, people wonder whether clients will be able to identify successes in the past. After all, some people are in very troublesome circumstances. I usually answer this question using two lines of argument. The first is that every property of any complex system always fluctuates. This suggests that any mental or behavioral state of human beings or social also fluctuates. So, even when something is very bad now, most likely there will have been times when things will have been better (also read: How good does it get? (4) - Fluctuation and progress). My second line of argument is that whenever a client turns out to be able to define a desirable future he does so by tapping from positive memories. After all, how can we desire for something we have no knowledge of? So my argument is: positive memories are building blocks of desirable future scenario's. What I only recently found out is that there is some scientific support for this claim. Here is a description of that research (source):
People with amnesia have difficulty imagining future events with any richness of detail and emotion, a new study reveals. The finding adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that memories help people visualize the future. Eleanor Maguire [photo] at the Welcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in London, UK, and colleagues studied five patients who suffered from classic amnesia. The patients had all suffered infections that had damaged a brain region called the hippocampus. The damage left the subjects unable to recall past events, although they could remember facts such as the names of their relatives. Researchers asked the participants - and a control group without amnesia - to imagine several future scenarios, such as visiting a beach, museum and castle, and to describe what the experience would be like. They then analysed the subjects' narrations sentence by sentence, scoring each statement based on whether it involved references to spatial relationships, emotions or specific objects. All but one of the amnesiacs were worse at imagining future events than the participants in the trial who did not suffer from amnesia. Their visualizations of future events were more likely to be disorganized and emotionless. "It's not very real. It's just not happening. My imagination isn't ... well, I'm not imagining it, let's put it that way," one patient told researchers during a trial.
This research raises three thoughts with me: 1) we can generally be confident that clients will be able (with our encouragement) to identify past successes when they are able to say how they would like things to become, 2) might it be so that memory impaired patients are less susceptible for solution-focused therapy or coaching?, 3) can memory training support mental health and performance improvement?


  1. I think that the emotional charge of an event will dictate the memorability of this event. Sometime, people make some choices that will reduce their chances of remembering something that could be useful in certain situations. For example, let's imagine a young man that due to the fact that he lived in very poor material conditions, decides to work hard to lift himself out of this poor condition. The decision to work hard overrides his impulses of fun and as such he shies away from entertainment focusing himself on study. Little by little the professional life becomes his entire life. Most if not all of the pleasant moments are moments of intellectual discoveries or maybe financial successes or reaching certain statuses. However, at one point in his life he reaches a point where he looses control. Maybe he's personal life becomes a mess because his lack of involvement of his lack of perceived importance of this life.

    Asking such a man to think about better moments of his personal life might prove a futile experiment. His personal life experiences were demoted as importance and as such were less memorable. He simply has difficulties remembering them not because he had none but because he considered them irrelevant to his purpose.

    Ok, training such am man in the concept of mind-fullness or savoring might improve things BUT his prior experience might be next to useless.

  2. Hi Peter, I think there is hope for this young man and I believe a 'regular' solution-focused conversation might be helpful. The crux is to search for past success at the right spots. When I would be talking with such a client I would explore his perspective. I would ask him what his reason for coming here was, what he hoped to get out of the conversation, etc. Of course specific 'techniques' like normalizing, reframing, creating positive expectations, platform questions and coping questions could play useful roles in the process. But, based on my experience, I would predict that the two most useful things would, in the end, turn out to be: helping him to define how he would like his situation to become (success in the future) and when things have already been a bit like that.
    When he reaches that point at which he realizes that things have gotten out of control, he realizes that something will have to change. When there is a desire for change, it is almost always possible (sometimes with much encouragement) to help a person to say how he would like things to become (maybe he'd say, in this case, that he would like to have more social contacts...). When doing this I'd say he'd be using memories of past success. These might be slight recent fluctuations (for instance a situation when things were perhaps only slightly better) of older memories.
    With such a client I would predict that he would at first aim for a situation in which he would coping. In other words, for a situation that would be good enough at first. Later on, when he would be back in control, I would not be surprised if he'd started improving things more.
    It is always difficult to say sensible things about cases from a distance but I hope it is understandable what I mean. And I hope you'll find it useful and interesting of course.
    best wishes, and thanks again for yet another interesting comment

  3. Thanks for your ideas but... what do you do when this is not a young man.
    What do you do when this man is a man in his 50s with a prestigious professional career. What do you do when you hear from someone close to him that after 40 minutes spent with a specialist on trying to find something he enjoyed (outside work) and all he could come up with was some guitar playing in his college years (he doesn't play guitar).

    This is not a client or someone who though about contacting a specialist.

    Anyway... from a theoretical point of view, I think some help might come from approaching the man from a socionics point of view and finding something in accord with his Ego functions. This might be from a certain point of view solution focused only that the solutions are not searched in the person's past but rather in the psychological type's past, in the past of the archetype.

  4. Hi Peter,

    First of all, what I would do would depend on how I would be involved.

    If he´d come to me for help, I would do the things like I have described above. There is no need to despair at all when 40 minutes of talking would no have led to any past successes. It would be no problem at all for me to take more time. A 'technique' that is often helpful in the solution-focused approach is some kind of observation suggestion. what you do is, you invite the person to observe between this conversation and the next, things that are slightly better, of things that are worth continuing because they are good enough.

    Of course, if I (or another solution-focused specialist) would not be involved at all I (or they) would do nothing with this.

    Still, this would not necessarily make this situation hopeless. Many people at some point in their life may come to a point at which they have serious difficulties, doubts and despairs. Often, waht we will see is that they will be able to cope and, having come this far, take a few further steps. Often, after some things, things will somehow improve.

    Certainly there may be other approaches that be helpful but I am not qualified to say much about them.

    Thanks again, Coert

  5. very intersting, i'd suggest to think a new format of the "exception questions" in these cases, also in organizational change management process, when our manager find difficulties to remember her/his previous successes.

  6. Hi Riccardo, thanks, could you tell me more about that?


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