One of my favorite podcasts, Studio 360, had a special episode in January about neuroscience and memory, including one story that I can’t stop thinking about. It was told by Meehan Crist and titled Remembering My Mother Forgetting. It’s a fascinating and heartbreaking story about Crist’s mother and the traumatic brain injury she suffered while ice skating when Crist was a child. The part of the story that stuck with me described when Crist was trying to understand her mother’s memory loss and became fascinated with the physical structure of the brain and how memories are retained and recalled. It’s incredibly interesting and you should definitely listen to the whole thing, but the quick point was: memories are fragile. Memories were described as breakable objects stored in little drawers and when you try to recall a memory, you are opening the drawer, taking your memory out, and damaging it. You put the memory back, close the drawer, and the next time you open that drawer to recall that same memory, what you take out is the damaged memory, which you then damage further. Over and over, the more you remember something, the more you damage and change it until you can no longer rely on your memories at all.
Wow. Remembering is forgetting.
The types of memories that you damage in this way aren’t basic facts like the times tables or the alphabet or anything like that, they’re the emotional memories, the shape of your grandmother’s face or the sound of your father’s voice. As heartbreaking as the thought of losing these memories might be, I actually found comfort in this idea by applying it to traumatic memories. Can you break down and destroy a bad memory by recalling it and remembering it over and over again? I think you can.
Could this explain how writing about the sudden death of my dog, Molly, and then the obsessive nature in which I read and reread and reread the post I wrote eventually made me feel a little better? By organizing the facts and feelings of the incident and then forcing myself to relive them repeatedly, did I damage those memories, wear down the sharp points, and put them back in their drawers as broken shadows of the horrible memories they used to be? I think I did.
I tried to explain this idea to a few friends this past weekend, but they weren’t really getting my point. They disagreed with the whole concept of remembering is forgetting in general, but to me it makes perfect sense. The more you talk about a problem, the better you feel. Don’t let your feelings out, you begin to feel frustrated, haunted, and miserable. Right?
Tell me what you think? Am I nuts? Does it make total sense to you?