To Forgive Is to Remember... Differently

Duke professor leads team studying memory and forgiveness in Colombia

Professor Felipe De Brigard is studying how memory and forgiveness interact
Professor Felipe De Brigard is studying how memory and forgiveness interact

Forgive and forget: two words, often combined into one piece of advice despite seeming contradictory.

“Forgiveness involves the emotional reappraisal of the memory of a past wrongdoing,” said Felipe De Brigard, a Duke neuroscientist and associate professor of philosophy. “When you forgive someone for a wrongdoing, you don’t forget the event. But once you forgive, the memory doesn’t hurt as much.”

De Brigard is studying how forgiveness and memory affect one another, through the experiences of some of the thousands of people who survived political violence in his native Colombia. The decades of conflict included bombings, neighborhood massacres, countless victims murdered in front of their loved ones.

“We are talking about people who have experienced really difficult things,” De Brigard said. “Some of these acts are quite literally unforgivable.”

Through his work, De Brigard hopes to learn how memory affects forgiveness, and how memories are affected by different ways to approach the act of forgiving. He is also tackling a question many Colombian survivors are grappling with now, and which has dogged humanity since forever: “How do you help the person who cannot bring herself to forgive, and yet wants to move on?”

De Brigard often says he has been interested in memory for as long as he can remember. Philosophy and neuropsychology were a natural fit, and over time his focus narrowed upon memory and imagination.

“Memory guides imagination,” he said, “but is also constrained by it.”

Imagination and memory collide every day in counterfactual thinking. That’s what happens when we imagine how past events could have happened differently, for better or worse – ‘if only I hadn’t crashed my car,’ or ‘at least I wasn’t hurt.’

“One of the reasons we engage in counterfactual thinking is that when a negative memory gets reactivated, you can use your imagination to mollify the emotional component of the memory so it doesn’t hurt as much the next time you remember it,” De Brigard said. “We use imagination to mollify the negative impact of our memories because we have to carry them around.”

This led De Brigard to study forgiveness, which he said, in a similar way, “promotes psychological wellbeing by mollifying memories.”

The team includes Kevin LaBar, a professor in the departments of Psychology & Neuroscience and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Duke; Pablo Abitol of the Technological University of Bolívar; Santiago Amaya of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá; Wilson López of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana; and Lucy Allais of the University of the Witwatersrand and Johns Hopkins University.

The project received a $1 million grant from the Templeton Foundation. The research will involve studying three distinct groups: survivors of political violence from Montes de Maria, a rural region in the north of Colombia; people from Bogota who were indirect victims of the violence, through growing up and living around it; and a comparison group of individuals in the U.S.

Selected through various workshops designed to build trust, participants will vary in their openness to forgiving those responsible for their trauma.

“For some of them, forgiveness is very important,” De Brigard said. “Some of them haven’t been able to forgive, and others aren’t interested in forgiving.”

The team will compare people who say they have forgiven the people who wronged them with those who have not, to see neurological, physiological and behavioral differences in the way in which they remember the very same events.

The researchers will interview survivors on several occasions over time, while also measuring their neurophysiological activity through the scalp and reactions in facial muscles associated with feelings of contempt and anger.

“I think it’s going to help us show that the reason forgiveness changes your behavior in an adaptive and a positive way is because it is doing it through the mechanism of memory,” De Brigard said. “And it will help us clarify what is forgotten in the content of a memory when forgiveness occurs.”

Memories have multiple dimensions, de Brigard said, some of which are cognitive, and some affective – related to mood, feelings and outlook.

“Sometimes in the memory of a traumatic event, the emotion gets super amplified,” he said. “Sometimes the emotion with which you remember the event is not even the same emotion with which you experienced it.”

It’s this affective aspect of memory where De Brigard expects to find forgiveness to be most significant.

“When you forgive, what changes in the content of your memory is not so much how you remember exactly what happened, but your affective reaction to what happened,” he said. “We are interested in which ways forgiveness helps to mollify negative emotions, and the precise cognitive mechanisms by means of which forgiveness helps you to move on.”

And for those who cannot forgive, De Brigard hopes to measure the emotional effects of other methods by which traumatic memories can be reappraised, such as temporal distancing – asking someone how they will feel in 10 years, for example – or imagining how a terrible situation could have been even worse.

“A goal of my work is to show that while forgiveness is one way, there are other strategies for emotional reappraisal that could work too, that could help people to move on,” he said. “One of the reasons people say forgiveness is so important for moving on is because forgiveness usually brings about a positive affective change. But forgiveness is not always easy.”