Imagine you’re a server at a downtown bar and grill in the city. It’s open until 3 am and the surrounding area has gone completely silent and dark by the time you and your co-workers lock the doors and say good night. You’ve made cash tips on a Friday night, and it’s just in time too. Your rent is due and you had to make some emergency payments for your school loans and also to buy the parts for your car. It wasn’t a big deal, though, as you were able to make repairs yourself and save yourself quite a bit of money. So you’ve got a fat wad of bills in your pocket as you make your way home, through a small but poorly lit park. You eventually come to realize there are footsteps accompanying your own, behind you. Before you can react, a sharp discomfort hits you in the back and you go down, helpless and in immense pain as someone goes through your pockets, taking all that money you needed to pay rent with and escaping into the darkness. Luckily, a bystander hears the commotion and calls for an ambulance which arrives within minutes. The medics put you on a stretcher and rush you to the nearest hospital, where you’re stitched up. You can’t stop shaking, no matter what you do.
The ER doc who fixed you up tells you that, besides the soreness, vasovagal nausea, and visceral sickness, you’ll be okay. Then she sits down next to you, looks you straight in the eyes, and tells you that people who go through a traumatic event like you can develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition, she continues, can be debilitating, prompting flashbacks of the event to recur for weeks, months, years, and sometimes lifetimes. It can cause irritation, anxiety, and extreme reactions of fear.
But! She has a pill that you could down right now, and it will numb your ability to recall the night’s course, and thus hopefully guard against PTSD’s effects.
“Would you like to take this pill?”
You think about it for a few minutes while she checks on other patients.
A blood-pressure medication called propranolol just may have the ability to do exactly as the ER doctor described, and not just for recent trauma, but long passed as well. This future hasn’t come to pass yet, however. For the most part, humans are still more adept at subconsciously modding their own memories than any new developments in science. With people working on the sci-fi concept that can reconstruct or cleanse life’s memories, I find myself asking: do we need our memories?
How does memory inform who we are, and what gives me the idea that memory is so very inviolable? I know of several friends who would argue that humans are made by their experiences, and that their stories drive their identity. After all, we create our own self narratives based on the memories we hold on to and those we choose to forget. In a way, memory acts as the building plan for our understanding of self. I can use my past and experience to make decisions and direct the course of my life.
What happens, though, when we slice out the most horrific and uncomfortable memories we have and leave all the good ones? When our past is hard to think about, or embarrassing as is more often than not my case, are we as people better off devising a life story in which these memories don’t exist? If we do, are we condemned to repeat our follies without having learned from them, doomed to fight the same battles? By finding ways to cherry-pick memory, do we cherry-pick ourselves?
Memory isn’t a fixed entity. I edit my memory all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes I just remember wrong. Sometimes I only catch it if I’m with somebody else who my memory filters through. I forget. A lot. I train myself to remember some facts more than others, and specific moments stand out to me more than others.
Think back to your first kiss. Now try thinking back to the first time you rode a bike. How vivid is your memory of your third birthday? Is it like it happened yesterday, or is it grainy, tinted, maybe torn around the sides?
My father, the first time he showed me how to ride a bike without training wheels did that thing where you throw your leg over the bike as you’re moving forward. Some-age me thought that was the hardest thing ever. I tried to follow his example and failed, so for the next few years I would ride my bike by first getting on it, positioning the right peddle at its maximum height, place my right foot on it gently, and then apply the most downward force I could muster to propel the bike forward. After it was slowly lurching in the direction I wanted to go, I’d try to fumble my suspended-in-air left foot onto the left peddle. It looked pretty hilarious.
That’s what I remember. I think it was sunny. I don’t remember when it was specifically, or much of anything besides my own ineptitude.
Memory is malleable. Instead of being a photo album you can pull off a shelf and look back over, it morphs and warps, like a darkroom chemical bath. What was once thought to be a departmental storage system in the brain is more akin to a vast network of highways and backroads in the brain. Even when our factual memories fade, our emotional memories will not necessarily go with them.
PTSD is more of a not-forgetting than remembering problem. When the mind replays a troubling event, the fear and distress that were present when the memory was formed come flooding back. Fear and anxiety-based memories are stored in the amygdala, although their tendrils delve deep into every part of the brain. Propranolol blocks protein formation in the amygdala, meaning memories can’t be formed. Propranolol, in short, can erase the emotional fear of a memory without affecting the factual memory of what happened.
The human brain is a fantastically complicated and flexible thing. Its ability to surgically select our memories is an evolution-based adaptation, at least to my mind. If we remembered every second of every day, I daresay we’d get lost dwelling in our own minds and lose our functionality in the day-to-day. Psychology teaches that the human brain has evolved to forget trivial information and remember powerful or important episodes of our lives, especially negative ones, as a way to better predict future events and know how to deal with them.
Trauma, in this system, becomes much harder to obliterate. Dealing with it is like hardening and strengthening yourself, however uncomfortable or unpleasant it may be.
I don’t need to remember what I ate for dinner last Thursday, nor what I wore to that Furthur concert in 2016. I do remember going outside a fancy restaurant facing a duck pond when I was a wee tike and mooning the whole dining room to pee in the pond. I like to think I learned from that.
All the same, memory makes me who I am, at least partly. Even the most painful, shameful, and difficult memories are not things I want to forget. They’re my cautionary tales, my party stories, my gray hairs, and my wisdom. I’ve earned them all. They enable me to navigate newer situations more easily than if I couldn’t remember what I’d done.
Over time, my memories have defined my personal understanding of myself and have become part of my narrative. Yes, I’m forgetful about some things I wish I’d remembered, yes I remember things where I question why I remember them so vividly when they’re seemingly unimportant, and yes, I certainly remember things I don’t like remembering, but I don’t have to fill any empty holes in the narrative of me. I can look at what I can’t remember and remember who I am.
You’re sitting there when the ER doc comes back around. “Thought about it?” she asks.
You look up at her, squint your eyes, and say, “Thought about what?”