The Persistence of Memory: Mental Health and Remembering

In the wake of a broken heart – we often believe we will lose our ability to “feel” – overcome by the waves of numbness that a betrayal or loss can bring us. We become certain that we will never feel those good things again – that soaring, grandiose, manic feeling called love. But we become mighty confident that our dark side will grow and prosper.
A research study out of the University of Iowa looked at patients suffering from severe memory loss due to hippocampal damage consistent with that seen in Alzheimer’s disease (he hippocampus is a brain structure that subserves memory). After being shown film clips that induced strong emotions – they reacted appropriately. And when asked about the clips later they could not remember the content or story, but they could call upon the feelings invoked by the clips. From a treatment perspective it meant that although such patients may not “remember” the content of what a visitor or therapist says to them – they may be able to “hold on” to the positive emotions such a conversation would provide.
Now, most of us have intact hippocampi – and we remember both the story and the feeling. After a broken heart or betrayal – we remember the harsh words and disappointing behavior, sometimes for a LONG time. As the weeks, months, and years go by – the story fades – but something breezes by – an old photo, the smell of a favorite meal, the façade of a favorite restaurant – and the feeling floods us again – good and bad. The happiness we experience at a certain time is not rendered invalid because it ended badly – it WAS happy then – and despite everything, we have the apparatus to draw upon that. In fact, as this study shows, our brains can hold on to the “feeling” even when it lets go of the narrative.
At the end of the day – that should make us feel braver and perhaps even more cavalier with our hearts. I am in the midst of untangling some loss right now and the past few years have been riddled with the corpses of hopes and loves dashed (my learning curve is not as sharp as I would have liked). Without exception, over time, the literal story has faded, and the feeling (both good and bad) has stayed. It has rendered me less angry at these men, and actually grateful for the life lessons and the positive emotions. The events that brought these positive emotions were lovely – but I don’t clearly remember all the details – a kiss on a pier, a day at the beach, a cup of tea. However, what persisted – were the feelings. After I read the University of Iowa study I realized, that even when the brain starts losing its power – we still take the feelings with us. So even at the risk of hurt – perhaps the only thing to do is to keep living, feeling and throwing our hat into the ring.
I often live in the service of the old woman I will someday become – filling her memory with images and thoughts of a life fully lived. I am emboldened to know that living fully may actually fill her with many positive (and a few negative) feelings to pull upon and muse on. So tonight, I fully intend to put on a shiny new dress, a shinier smile, and instead of hiding behind a banner of bitterness, I will welcome the smiles that come my way. If our brains can let go – then so can we. And when the next person comes into my life, again, the likelihood is that may end badly. But the risk is worth it. The good feelings may very well stay, and that is my gift to myself.


This entry was posted on Sunday, April 25th, 2010 at 1:39 pm and is filed under Health and Wellness, Relationships and Sex. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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