Archive | March, 2012

On A Stolen Life

29 Mar

I’ve recently finished A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard. For those unfamiliar with the story, Jaycee was kidnapped at the age of 11 and held in captivity for 18 whole years. She recently wrote a memoir describing her experience. [Warning: Spoilers below]

The book was a great read, offering an emotional image of such a painful experience. Jaycee went through everything imaginable from not being allowed to speak her own name, being handcuffed and left alone for extended periods of time, to sexual assault and eventually giving birth to two daughters by her kidnapper.

On remembering traumatic experiences, I kept wondering to myself how Jaycee was able to recall so much vivid information. Researching this week, I read about emotional and psychological trauma and its effect on memory. Memory loss is a natural survival skill we have. It serves as a type of defense mechanism we develop in order to protect ourselves from psychological damage. Emotionally traumatic events like what Jaycee went through can lead to dissociative amnesia, where a person can cope by allowing them to temporarily forget details of an event. They will often suppress memories of a traumatic event until they are ready to handle them, which actually may never occur.

I’ve attempted to capture traumatic experiences as well, but it seems every time I do, I can’t get the essence of what I’m trying to say. The memories flood and it seems like I’m forgetting important details. I couldn’t believe how well Jaycee captured her experience on paper. Through the text alone, I felt like I knew her. Her story was truly inspirational.

On “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever”

9 Mar

I always think of the nature of memory as something uncontrollable. We can’t choose what to remember or forget and it seems experiences that are particularly traumatic are the hardest to put out of our minds. Now it seems we’ll soon be able to forget our past. More specifically, we’ll be able to pinpoint just what memory we want gone. Poof. Like it never happened. Sounds terrifying if you ask me.

My issue with this idea of “erasing memory” is that for one, I can’t conceptualize the thought of erasing specific memories. I’m not sure about you, but my brain often seems to work like a large collection of 5-second films. My memories flood through my mind constantly, but only in short bursts. I find it extremely difficult to deeply focus on any given experience without getting side-tracked. One minute I’m thinking about how embarrassed I felt when my pants fell down in 4th grade, and the next thing you know, I’m thinking about the awesome spinach omelette I devoured for breakfast today. Seriously — I just remembered that.

The idea that a “forgetting pill” can just delete any one memory is unfathomable because it depends on your ability to conjure up a memory and deeply focus on the associated emotions. It sounds like if I attempted something like this, I would lose way more than just one memory. Since my brain seems to “jump” around constantly, I’m not sure how drug administers could enforce the isolation aspect of a single experience.

I hate to sound so cliché, but I do believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m all for this treatment being offered to those who suffer from serious cases of PSTD or addictions that inhibit a healthy and normal life. Negative and painful experiences shape us. They help us to learn, to grow, to be stronger. If we had the ability to just erase everything we didn’t like, we’d all be a bunch of happy-go-lucky shallow fakes. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh here,  but as someone who has gone through the traumatic experience of losing a mother, I can honestly say I wouldn’t be willing to give up that memory. This experience is mine — something I cherish and like to hold on to.

This article reminded me of the novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. Without giving away any spoilers, the basis of the story is that everyone lives in an Utopian society. There are no feelings or emotions; individuals can simply take a pill when they stub their toe and all pain is relieved. Jonas, the main character, is given a set of memories of what life once was — pain, hunger, love, desire, sadness. Who was Jonas without these memories and experiences that make us unique? Nobody, in my book.

On Forgetting

1 Mar

I’ve been recently studying the idea of memory. Ironically, my brain was so off yesterday that I couldn’t remember anything, it seemed. It started when my laptop plug decided to spark up and die. I was angry for about five minutes and then I remembered I had a spare laptop. I dig through my closet and finally spot it. Upon booting up, I stare at a log-in screen. I cannot remember the password to save my life. I try every combination known to man when finally a password hint pops up. The hint is “Yahoo!” What a relief, I thought. The password is clearly the same as my Yahoo! account. I place my hands on the keyboard and realize I have forgotten my Yahoo! password. After about 10 minutes of continuous cursing, I suddenly remember I can just use my tablet. I whip it out and go to power it on, but it’s dead — and of course, I can’t remember where the charger is. Ok. What the heck is going on?

This annoying experience had me thinking: why is memory so spotty sometimes? Furthermore, what kind of cues would have helped me to remember things like my old password or where I last put my charger? After doing some brief research, I came across the term “cue-dependent forgetting” also known as “retrieval failure.”

The idea behind cue-dependent forgetting is that we fail to recall because of missing stimuli. The information still exists, but without these cues, retrieval is not likely. When I purchased that spare laptop, I was a total weirdo in high school. Of course, five years later, I am a completely different person (hopefully less weird). Perhaps in high school, I chose to make my password something that generally made sense to me then. Because I no longer have those cues that were present at the time I encoded that memory, it makes sense that it would be difficult to decode it now.  Moreover, “state-dependent cues” relate to our state of mind and being at the time of encoding which can certainly be completely different years later when you are trying to perform retrieval.

I may have learned some new ideas behind memory, but perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is to write things down and keep important information in a safe (and memorable) place.