Neglect to Remember: Proust, Bushes, Healthy Aging

Sometimes memory seems so mysterious and baffling. The other day, suddenly and seemingly quite randomly, I felt washed over by a “Maverick” wave of shame. Maverick waves I learned, in the surfing vernacular, are monster or super waves: unpredictable, suddenly appearing and potentially “extremely dangerous.”  Yes, admittedly that sounds dramatic, but it felt like that. I felt the accompanying tightness in my slightly and suddenly nauseous stomach, and a sour taste in my mouth, even a little tension in my throat of either tears or screams. And then floated up the thought… “My whole life is a lie…” 

I had never had that brutally honest thought before. I vividly remembered sitting diligently in my Marxist Leninist study groups, echoing the party line, “No alternative to armed struggle! Strategy and tactics, Hasta la Victoria Siempre (forever until victory!) It was a dark secret that I was in therapy. Such an individualistic and “weak,” petit-bourgeois endeavor would have been a sure cause for ouster, ex-communication. In search of meaning, purpose, and probably a way to die, I had constructed a persona to be and tried desperately to shove a square peg into a round hole. No wonder it was simply a matter of a few short years before I cracked up completely. Being a child of neglect, lacking the developmental brain and life experiences that enable an authentic self to emerge, I flailed and found what was in effect a mask, a costume and a role. That is what a child of neglect will do, although perhaps with less theatrical effects. I guess it took that much, although still failed, to quite get my dad’s attention.

But where did that memory come from? And even with new highlights or narrative. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Except that I was struggling with a perhaps lesser, but similar identity, shame episode. Perhaps it was just similar enough to be a traumatic stimulus. Hmmm. I never read Marcel Proust’s famous book about how a flood of (much more idyllic I believe) memory was unleashed by a simple bite of a certain kind of cookie. A “Madeleine”, I’ve never had one of those either. Powerful stuff. Well, I was reminded of that. And then I happened to hear an interview with a memory researcher, Charan Ranganath, about his new book Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold On to What Matters, in which he explains and describes in some detail the different types of memory.

Traumatic Memory

 

I remember my long commutes to my job at the San Francisco V.A. (Veterans’ Administration) hospital, back in the days of cassette tapes, the late 1980s, listening to Bessel’s talks over and over again, as he talked about what happens in the brain when an organism experiences traumatic events. Overwhelmed by a stimulus greater than what the system is designed to process in its customary way, the logical, cognitive, and verbal part of the brain, the meaning-making prefrontal cortex is blown offline and effectively shuts off. The brain and body flood with stress hormones and blood flow is redirected to the extremities in the service of survival. Fight or flight. I was brand new to any information and language of science and anatomy, which is why I needed so much repetition not only to get it but to remember. 

But I did readily remember the glaring visceral visuals of speechless terror. And I remembered the images of Bessel’s Rorschach ink blots, and his voice saying of the veterans, “Either they saw their worst horrors, or nothing at all.” I can still hear it. Now that is good teaching! And it also sums up the nature of traumatic memory. Some survivors are swamped by haunting ceaseless and graphic recall and can’t seem to escape it. 

And as we also now know, the amygdala or alarm bell of the brain, is hell-bent against the traumatic event happening again, and even the slightest stimulus that may in some way or other resemble the original trauma, can set off survival strategies. Suddenly and often unwittingly the unrecovered survivor is in full-on fight or flight. To the dismay of partners or bystanders, and sadly often vulnerable children, it is as if the trauma is repeating itself right now. “Triggering”, or what I prefer to call activation. Nerve racking and tiring for all.

For other survivors, the prefrontal cortex having shut down, there may be only a blank empty space, and no memory at all, at least for a time. And if and when it does break through it can elicit a maverick of confusion and self-doubt about what is true. I for one, had no recall for years of my worst traumatic experiences, and when they did burst on the scene and took over my life for a time, I was hard-pressed to know what to believe.

Bushes

 

One of my first neglect survivor clients, or I should say, one of the first whom I came to identify as being a survivor of neglect said “I have no memory of my childhood, just bushes. Bushes and a little bit of the family dog. That was probably 40 years ago. But somehow, I still remember her words, her name and the moment she said them. Why did I log that so clearly? My life is much like hers, a large and blank empty space. Says Ranganath, when we log the original filing richly, with sensory and emotional detail, that memory is likely to endure and age well. I guess I intuitively knew this, which is why I like to adorn my teaching with colorful imagery and emotional stories. (And I like to add a song to these blogs!) The brain is more likely to retain what is more multi-sensory or emotion-laden. 

Similarly, as is often the case with neglect, when life is a vast desert of nothing, that is what we remember: nothing. Or perhaps what is most picturesque or memorable is the bushes or the dog. Mine are snapshots of me reading Little Women, or doing the “twist” to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” when it first came out in 1963. 

An environment of chronic or ongoing stress, like growing up essentially trapped or confined in a world of overt abuse, and/or painfully ignored or rejected in the mind-blowingly vacuous environment of neglect, is “neuro-toxic.” Similarly, life in a war zone, where terror, threat and uncertainty are ever-present, keeps the brain bathed in stress hormones, which over time disrupts healthy memory and pre-frontal function. More good reasons to end abuse, neglect and of course war.

Ranganath also speaks of what he calls “small f” forgetting, which in effect boils down to ordinary slips or word finding. He says, and sadly I must echo his words, “My ability to remember song lyrics from the 80s far exceeds my memory for why I walked into the kitchen.” This he terms as a function of normal aging. My Achilles heels are around scheduling and bookkeeping. Oy vey! And I do hate wasting my time looking for things! Admittedly, I have grown increasingly “OCD” about where I put things, out of existential fear that I may never see them again!

Recently I had an experience where I went to use my old laptop, the one I use for traveling, and for the life of me, I could not remember the password. I banged on that poor thing probably close to a million times, trying all the various passwords I have used and could remember, so frustrated because I had recently used it on my last trip just two months ago. I also knew, because it has happened enough times, that very often, in a day or two some misbegotten, lost or forgotten item floats quietly forth from the swamp, and voila is back! Sure enough, that is what happened in about 24 hours. What is that?

Says Ranganath, information “competes” for real estate in the brain. All that banging and repeatedly trying every generation of passwords had my brain space sticky and cluttered with passwords. When I let it all settle down, the “one” emerged. A new start with fresh eyes, words to live by, no?

Finally, in these times we have come to virtually take for granted the chronic hum or backbeat of distractions: pinging texts, all manner of device alarms and interferences. Distraction of course interrupts attention and clear and accurate recall. Texting while in a meeting or class, certainly erodes explicit, accurate recall of either the meeting or the text chat. Yet all these are in the normal range. 

Biden confusing the names of the Egyptian and Mexican presidents was an embarrassing but not pathological “gaff.” If he had forgotten that he had met with the president of Egypt at all, says Ranganath, if that memory was simply “not there,” that would be a cause for concern, or suggest a “memory problem.” “Word finding” and forgetting names or passwords are expectable, annoying but not pathological “small f” features of healthy aging. 

But Good news! Ranganath is quick to add, there are ways that the prefrontal cortex improves with age! Compassion, optimism and emotional regulation all are strengthened as we move through the years. So there! Don’t worry, be happy! Turn off your devices, be present, and as my mom wisely said, “We have to live well. You never know what will happen!”  

Today’s song (A Happier Memory):

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