Me vs. Brain

Memory can be a funny thing.

I want to lead a better life. I don’t mean that I want to refocus my efforts, give more to charity, rescue wee kittens from smelly old ladies or change the world. I mean to definitively lead a better life. To instigate change in myself and through that change find new possibilities and practices that allow me to better harness whatever innate qualities I possess, thus creating a better quality life. One, of course, would hope the consequences of these metamorphoses would lead to a few saved kittens and maybe even some soap for the aging smelly ladies (and wouldn’t that be a better, changed world?) but, unfortunately, focusing on the ends often defeats the means.

We’re made up of our memories. And we all have a stable of significant memories that we nurture and harvest for the sake of our self-image. Many of these memories aren’t helpful, can in fact be destructive, as the values and beliefs we appraise them with cause us to take meanings from them that aren’t real. That construct a self image that is flawed and impedes evolution or growth of a sustainable and fruitful existence.
So we travel up and down the time-stream of our lives evaluating our memories and thus ourselves, trying to divine what is true, what is not and how that affects us. But memories don’t cooperate.

I read a thing about memories a while back, about their storage and access. Basically there are three parts to the brain: the cerebrum, the limbic system and the brain stem. Memory storage is as you would expect, filed with the book-keeper of the brain, the cerebrum, where all the cool, higher functions take place. But emotional interpretation happens elsewhere, in the limbic brain, the emotional core of our beings, which is adrift in significant ways from our reasoning centre in the cerebrum. The funny thing being that the limbic brain has absolutely no sense of time. None. Total fucking goldfish, man. When you access memories that are powerful, stored in the cerebrum, they are interpreted by the limbic brain as ever new and original. When the limbic brain experiences a memory it is always for the first time. The catch is that the limbic brain is plugged straight into the brain stem, and thus to our nervous system, and our bodies always believe the limbic over the cerebral, making us physically and emotionally eternally present in our reaction to memories. But wait! It always starts with our thinking. Our emotional response is a secondary reaction to the cerebral importance we place on a particular memory. When traumatized we don’t suppress our emotions, because we just can’t, so we suppress our cerebral memories because without those the limbic brain can’t react, all mad goldfish stylz, to the horror.

To put it simply, the limbic time traveler in our head can’t cope with the constant and insistent immediacy of an ever-present experience. So you bamboozle the book-keeper by fudging the records.

Done? Nooooo, never that easy, baby. The emotional impact is still there, waiting, you’ve just stripped it of the consistent cues it needs. And since it has nothing to attach to, the books of memory being all smudged up, you never know what cues, through weird swings and roundabouts of association, will bring a sudden flash of memory, setting off the limbic time-traveler in your head. Boom. So the potential emotional impact just floats, anchorless and perfectly formed, around your head.


The upshot is that if you don’t deal with the memory, understanding it and what it actually means (It’s not your fault Will Hunting, it’s not your fault) to you as a singular entity, then you’re totally screwed, dude. It’s like juggling buttered toast and trying not to get your fingers greasy.

I have a new found respect for the psychiatric profession.


3 responses to “Me vs. Brain

  1. Katherine Tuthill

    Hi, this was the first of your blogs that I’ve read, and I wish it wasn’t. Your philosophy of change and potential rings true for me. You seem to have a real clarity of purpose at the moment and I hope that continues for you. Its really good to hear about how the brain tricks you. I try to remember but real life and that damn limbic brain keep getting in the way…

  2. I think what you’re talking about here is PTS and supressed memories: memories of trauma may not be processed and filed away in the usual way, and so remain in a kind of perpetual present, constantly re-lived via flashbacks in which the emotional impact never reduces over time. The important thing about PTS is that it’s an exceptional case, caused by a failure of the usual systems.

    The good news is, our brains are plastic, constantly being rearranged and the information and memories being re-processed. Evidence of this is that we can remember some events from our past which we know upset us at the time but no longer make us upset when we recall them.

    It *is* possible to change your perspective on your past!

    • Essentially, yeah, a lot of what I was talking about was PTS and suppressed memories, which I find a fascinating subject, and the play-dough of our brains is exceptional – the only thing I’d argue from your comment is that the exceptional cases of PTS and the their effects represent a failure of our brains functionality – I think it’s exactly the opposite, that it is our brains at their most ingenious, deliberately short circuiting in order to protect themselves. Like a surge protector.
      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, repression (and all it’s cousins) is a massively undervalued tool.

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