Telling Voices Authors

Regretfully Yours

Amy Summerville, who runs a Regret Lab in Miami University, explains why our brain ruminates over bad memories

By telling you not to cry over spilt milk, your regret was waved aside. Amy Summerville who runs a Regret Lab in Miami University, Ohio, tells you what it means to regret in an episode of The Hidden Brain, “It is the second most commonly experienced emotion and the most common negative emotion…a pervasive part of how people experience the world around them…I realize regret is actually a very hopeful emotion. It's something that is helping us learn from our mistakes and do better in the future.”

Regrets are of many types, “..if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you're going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? … in the long run, we tend to have such things that become kind of incomplete goals and stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list… when we're trying to undo something bad that's happened to us, it's easy to start imagining all of the things we might have done in the past because we have a lot more of those available to us than the things we actually did.”

Symptoms of depression

By ruminating over bad memories says Summerville, “…they're repeatedly, intrusively becoming sort of part of our mental landscape. And what we found is that people who have ruminative regrets tend to be people who are also experiencing the most negative outcomes, so are more likely to have clinical depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, things like that… I think people often tend to focus a lot on their own actions about negative events. And it's probably important to think about the fact that you're just one agent in a much bigger framework”

We have also unconsciously developed some thinking habits to cope with the world, “..the fear or the pain of having a world that seems without meaning or is unexplainable or unpredictable - that pain of that might actually be greater than the pain of taking on regrets for things that you actually maybe don't have responsibility for and experiencing personal anguish about it… people tend to generate these what-if thoughts as a way of trying to understand their experiences and as a way of trying to bring control to things that feel uncontrollable.

We don't like the idea that bad things happen with no reason and without the ability to predict them. And, in the case of regret, I think it can be not wanting to think about a tremendous loss as something that wasn't predictable and wasn't controllable, that it's I think very reassuring sometimes to try to come up with an explanation of, there's a way that this could have been prevented. It could have been changed. And it feels less random and less senseless in that way,” says Summerville.

A little bit of regret, therefore, seems just fine. Catch the new year with new resolves built on dissolved regrets!

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 9:19:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/friday-review/article22326147.ece

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