I've been thinking about a story from last week's New York Times, headlined, "For the Brain, Remembering is Like Reliving."
The story was about an experiment showing that memory can be as powerful as experiencing the event itself. The experiment, performed on the brains of epilepsy patients waiting for surgery, showed that "spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced." Researchers concluded that for the brain, remembering is a lot like doing. The experiment was reported Friday in the journal Science.
According to the Times, "Though it did not address this longer-term process, the new study suggests that at least some of the neurons that fire when a distant memory comes to mind are those that were most active back when it happened, however long ago that was."
Which is why it seems so real when you start remembering serious "stuff" that you've been through. I can get extremely worked up when my mind starts playing this tape from last August: My doctor, Dan DeAngelo, walks into the exam room and says, "The leukemia is back." Even writing those words now, I feel like I am reliving them.
Many of us might not be professional experts in post-traumatic stress, but we are certainly personal experts, and this brain thing goes a long way towards explaining the power of those chilling memories.
The flip side, luckily, is that good memories bring us back, too.
So when we start to relive the bad times, we can try to switch the channel and let those happy neurons fire.