When a memory is activated, a large-scale assembly of neurons and synapses forms an emergent pattern. If other things are in your mind at the same time – and particularly if they’re strongly pleasant or unpleasant – your amygdala and hippocampus will automatically associate them with that neural pattern…Then, when the memory leaves awareness, it will be reconsolidated in storage along with those other associations [original emphasis]. The next time the memory is activated, it will tend to bring those associations with it.
— From Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, written by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
The above is taken from the book (well one of them) that I am currently reading. I find it absolutely fascinating that modern science (mostly that of the “neuro” variety) has recently been able to validate many spiritual and religious beliefs about the human condition, which people have been following and preaching for thousands of years. On the simplest levels, utilizing modern tools like the MRI, research has revealed that meditation/chant/prayer has a calming effect on brain activity, which then directly beneficially influences things like stress levels, neurochemical production, and a plethora of physiological responses. This book tries to delve a bit deeper to explain how meditation and mindfulness, as practiced in Buddhism, can be used to physically rewire the brain to create many beneficial effects first for the self, and secondly for those around oneself. Happiness and calmness tends to create the same in others, it is argued.
I was particularly interested in the idea presented above; that past memories and current emotions can get bound together, and will continue to be so every time that particular memory is retrieved. The example the authors provide is remembering a past failure while at the same time giving yourself a hard time about it. This will only make that memory more and more negative as time goes on. Another example would be remembering someone who has hurt you while experiencing the emotion of hurt and depression. If that memory and that emotion continue to be coupled together every time the memory is retrieved, the memory will only become more and more painful, negative and difficult.
Two popular adages come to mind.
1) Time heals all wounds – this seems to go directly against what the authors are arguing, and what the research has suggested. If a hurtful memory keeps coming up again and again and you find it just as painful every time you think of it, then how could that emotion possibly fade? My personal theory is that it just becomes less important. A new heartbreak, for example, is the center of focus in the immediate time following it, but six months down the road, or a year, or five, there is so much new “stuff” in the brain that although thinking back to that time can still produce a strong emotion, the memory is probably tucked away on a pretty high shelf somewhere and is pretty covered up in the dust of new experiences.
2) Don’t cry because it ended, smile because it happened – this actually seems to be supported by the research the authors are describing. Keeping the heartbreak example in mind, what the authors are arguing is that if instead of coupling a memory of one that has caused you pain with bitterness, sadness, anger, etc. and instead trying to couple it slowly more and more with positive emotions, this will create a new bond, slowly, over time, between that memory and the positive emotion. The end result, which albeit requires time and conscious effort, will be that thinking back to what was initially a painful experience will no longer produce negative emotions, but rather positive ones.
This may seem a bit “pie in the sky” but trust me, if modern research into how our brains can be shaped and changed is at all accurate, and if you believe that there is a reason spiritual belief systems like Buddhism continue to flourish, there is a lot of truth in all of this. However, we must keep in mind that these changes are incremental, slow, and require practice. This is not a quick-fix, overnight solution. Lord knows, I can attest to that. But I can also say from personal experience, the more you practice the more you can see personal results and while they start out slow, they are still pretty spectacular and continue to amaze me more and more.
So why not try. What have any of us got to lose? Next time you think of some hurtful or sad event, try to couple it with a positive emotion or a positive and related memory. Continue to do this every time and see what happens. I think a lot of us would be pleasantly surprised.
1) This past weekend marked Vesak, which in many Buddhist traditions is considered the day that the Buddha gained enlightenment, at least that is how I understood it although the Wikipedia article I linked to suggests that it encompasses his birth, enlightenment, and death.
2) I am less than a month away from embarking on my own spiritual journey of sorts – a 10 day meditation retreat in northern Ontario. I will write about it soon. It is something I am quite scared to do but I know ultimately will be a great thing.