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Archive for April, 2015

Memory

What are the very first memories in your life?  One of my earliest memories is getting lost as a toddler. I had crossed the street, apparently, and that side was completely unfamiliar, I was terrified, disoriented. But then, out of nowhere, my Dad rescued me, he was wearing a colored polo shirt. I remember how relieved I felt.  He’s gone now, but that memory connects me to my younger self, and to him.

What do I remember? Who am I?  Perhaps these are two questions are really one in the same. It’s not my physical being that’s constant in the “me” throughout the years.  All my atoms and molecules are daily exchanged with those of my surroundings. My skin’s surface renews every six weeks, my blood cells every hundred days or so, skeleton every three years. I’m  not my job, or my home town,… though I might describe myself that way, they might change tomorrow. So what am I? More than anything it is my memories that tie me to all my yesterdays going all the way back to my  childhood, to all the people I’ve know, the values I cherish, the dreams I’ve had.   David Wilcox nails this link of identity and memory in The Farthest Shore

There is a rare group of individuals with super-memory ability. They can remember most of the hours of each day of their life, as I found out from Sixty Minutes last week   Some enjoyed this super memory as a blessing, but some found it a burden: reliving the emotion of difficult memory, of being different from everyone else. Most of us are very choosy in the moments we remember.Check out National Geographic’s Brain Games on Memory for some fun activities and insights. But how does our brain decide which moments, which sensory inputs to archive in memory? It turns out that our memory decider, the hippocampus, is part of the Limbic system, our emotional brain. In other words, emotional content of an experience decides whether the event becomes archived. Which makes a lot of sense from a survival perspective, so we can avoid the terrifying bear in that cave down the road! What does it mean to learn or remember? Memory means strengthening connections between neurons until the pathway’s automatic and guaranteed, given the correct prompt or access.
Access: I always say I can’t remember my dreams, but if I write it down and peek when I wake up, I’ll say “oh yeah” and it comes flooding back. So both access and emotional import are needed for memory
An adorable, lovely song which illustrates how emotion and memory are linked : Why Can’t I forget

Among the most troubling aspects of emotion and memory is PTSD. An intensely emotional event is seared into memory so that a trauma is relived. Memory becomes more real than now, with the power to steal the life of the present. But sometimes normally I live in memory and day dreams.

The opposite problem of forgetting is even more devastating, from the amnesia of brain injury to the soul stealing plague of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This disease takes away the ability to make new memories, and further, the brain tissue in which our memories are stored is progressively destroyed. We forget our self, our family, the meaning of …everything. I think it’s safe to say, we simply are our memories.

Finally, memory is wrapped up in time itself! Perhaps moments are eternal, as Einstein suggests: there simply is a fabric of space-time.  But since we can no longer experience these moments, their only proof is in our memory, and they way those moments continue to impact us today. “Teach us to number our days” says the psalmist, to grow wise in heart. Perhaps archiving our days deepens their meaning, and our connections.

What’s love got to do with it?

“What’s love got to do with it?” Sang Tina Turner
“What’s love but a second hand emotion?..
What’s love but a sweet old fashioned notion”
There’s a new club on campus, just a handful of kids, who are dissatisfied with their learning bundled into neat little courses, and seek the wisdom of looking at the spaces between the disciplines. The kid who started the club was my student last term, one of those brilliant, curious, inspiring young people it’s just an honor to meet! Anyway the topic he wants to explore is a classic:  “Love”. Originally for Valentine’s Day week, it’s been postponed to now, early April because their life “stuff” got in the way of the planned schedule. But now it’s spring, a time we traditionally read from Song of Songs, and it seems just perfect timing.
I’m one of the two presenters, and I am hoping that because of the interdisciplinary theme, they won’t mind if I merge the science with music and a children’s book!
Back to Tina Turner:
Love’s definitely a first hand emotion, strongly controlled by several hormones, for the various types of love
Oxytocin: released by the pituitary commands a new mom to fall helplessly in love with her newborn, and facilitates breast feeding.
Sex hormones for eros, of course.
Dopamine for the type of love which is addictive, that spurs uncontrollable desire.
Definitely a first hand emotion.
As for the “sweet old fashioned notion” which praises lust and belittles love in Tina’s song, consider this: Many animals, Tigers, for example, mate and separate, leading a solitary lives, but lone humans and our infants are helpless. Humans are very social, and our young require an enormous time commitment compared to other mammals, the kind that requires love and altruism for family and group survival.

In a song called “Love will show the way” Dave Wilcox presents a fabulous argument that love is far more than a sweet old fashioned notion.

You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason to believe
that the world could ever change, you say that love is foolish to believe in, ’cause there’ll always be some crazy, with an army or a knife, to take away your daydream, put the fear back in your life…” Then David riffs off of Macbeth: all the world’s a stage…
“It is love that mixed the mortar and it’s love that stacked these stones, and it’s love that built the stage here, though it looks like we’re alone. In this scene set all in shadows, like the night is here to stay, there is evil cast around us, but it’s love that wrote the play, and in this darkness love will show the way”

And David’s right – love has built us. It may seem inadequate at times, but it did get us here!
And love is one of those things that exists in the space between, more than the sum of its parts, right up the alley of this club.  In a sweet children’s story, the Velveteen rabbit, the love of a child turns a beloved stuffed bunny real. The bunny becomes shabby from use, and is finally consumed in flame because it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs. It only then becomes real. Life consumes us too. Perhaps love’s the more powerful reality which transcends our “flash in the pan” lives. Though insubstantial, it can make our lives real with meaning.
Finally, the musical “Rent” is playing on campus this week. In Rent’s most famous song, Seasons of Love “how do measure a year in the life? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles in laughter in strife, in, 525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in the life? How about love?” Suggests Larson. A good question!300px-The_Velveteen_Rabbit_pg_1

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