Sunday, September 7, 2008

Remembering is like reliving

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.


Nelle said...

I had to come and check out your blog. I can remember the physical feeling I had when receiving my first cancer diagnosis. I was laying in a hospital bed after a biopsy of a lymph gland when the doctor told me I had Hodgkins disease. I remember what he was wearing! "Thank God I don't have cancer" I said because they had told me I might have leukemia. He asked me what I thought Hodgkins was and I told him I didn't know. He then told me that it was a cancer of the lymphglands. I felt as though my body were falling through the bed, the floor below me.I will never forget that feeling. I was later diagnosed with a breast cancer and skin cancer. Those memories are deeply ingrained in my mind.

PJ said...

If only we could flip the switch to "happy" thoughts when those overwhelming feelings intrude. There's so much I've forgotten about my illness (thankfully), but the things I remember are just so damn potent. Like the invasive weeds in my garden, they keep poking through.

Anonymous said...

Ronni, Thank you for this blog! So true...the mind is a powerful place! And our ability to change the state of our minds is remarkable. I often exercise the practice you referred to; summoning good thoughts and memories to replace the "bad" ones. And luckily, the positive thoughts are more powerful than the negative. So "they" say! I'm willing to believe it, just for the fun of it! Sending you love (from Montana today. Heading to Oregon tomorrow!) xoxo, Chaska

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Ronni,
I read the article last Sunday, too. It has helped me to think of my different "selves" or "minds." Most times I'm referring to my "emotional self" and my "rational self." The beauty of this is that when my rational self sees my emotional self reacting to some signal in an unhelpful way, I can tell myself, "It's just a dream, or a memory, or whatever. It's not happening now." And the feelings, acknowledged, quiet down quickly.

And, as you say, consciously stirring up joyful memories does help lift my mood. I have a trove of favorite memories "on call" whenever needed. It doesn't always work, but it helps often enough to be useful.

With hope, Wendy

Anonymous said...

Hi Ronni,

I am very touched by your blogs. Your insight gives greater meaning to the experiences that transform us.

With love and appreciation for your perseverance and courage,
your blog-aphobic friend!

susiegb said...

Hi Ronnie
Nothing to do with your post but I was just looking back at my lymphomajourney blog (semi-inactive now except for after 3-monthly visits to my specialist) and I saw your msg there! Yes, let's be friends!! I kind of try to step back from 'health issues' now and use my other blog '' for 'normal life' posting! But of course it is always there in the back of my mind!

cheers from Australia!

Anonymous said...

I read the same article about how the brain re-lives events and then induces physical and emotional reactions that are as real as the original events themselves.
I guess that's why fear, joy, love, anger etc. are only a thought away, and why as we get older we can master techniques that allow us to have some control of them if we decide to.
Keeping the car on the road can be a choice. And, there are people that will help with the driving when you can't.
Great job with the blog. Keep 'em coming.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ronni,

Checking out your blog is like sitting back with a good book.

It is interesting to me how easy it was to manipulate memories to my advantage in dealing with "it" all. I do not remember the first diagnosis as a "bad" event. I do remember the day very clearly. I said to him, "Yeah, it's a probably just a swollen gland, right?" He looked me in the eye with his slow, measured gaze and replied, "Vytas, I think it is a lymphoma." It never registered. I didn't let it. I let it fly past. It didn't really bother me. I just consciously blocked what it meant out and went through the motions of tests, biopsies and treatment. I don't recall it as a "bad" event in my life. It's how I dealt with it.