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February 17, 2003

Fear and Memory


I thought you might be interested in an article in the March edition of Discover magazine, entitled “Can the Brain Conquer Fear?” by Steven Johnson. Although it focuses on the specific mechanics of fear-coded memories, what I found most interesting was the discussion of the brain’s multiple memory storage systems. As Mr. Johnson explains:

We’re accustomed to describing someone as having a good or a bad memory, as though memory were a single attribute that covers the entire range of storing and recalling information. We now know that the brain’s memory systems are far more diverse than this. There are systems devoted to explicit or declarative memories, like your childhood recollection of that pet python, and systems devoted to procedural memories that usually involve physical movement, like learning how to ride a bicycle. And then there are emotional memories. If you watch the activity in someone’s brain using a modern fMRI scanner, you see a different profile depending on which kind of memory the subject is conjuring up.

If something—say a movement in the bushes—reminds you of a previous encounter with danger, you’ll have a double reaction. You’ll consciously summon up a declarative memory of the previous scary event, which was originally laid down by your brain’s hippocampus. (“There I was walking down the path and I suddenly realized I had stepped right next to a rattlesnake”). You’ll also unconsciously access an emotional memory, which is routed through your brain’s amygdala. The declarative memory is rich, detailed and slow—it takes a second or two to appear. The emotional memory is virtually instantaneous, and its impact is felt indirectly via increased blood pressure, sped-up heart rate, elevated hormone levels and other physiological responses.

The existence of these two different memory systems explains why fearful people often aren’t very resourceful; their amygdala, having identified a dangerous situation, either falls back on what appears to be its default remedy—simply hunkering down and freezing—or on some other remedy that got them through this situation in the past, like screaming for help. (Interestingly, while there are many neural pathways leading from the amygdala to the neocortex, there are very few running back the other way, so it is difficult for your rational mental processes to win an argument with your amygdala.) And while the amygdala can be trained to associate the scary memory with a more intelligent response, simply explaining to the sufferer the irrationality of his or her phobia or the inadequacy of his or her reaction is a waste of breath. (Remember, the amygdala isn’t listening.)

I don’t know if the mechanism of other emotional memories is similar to that of fear. If they were, however, it would tend to explain a lot of neurotic behavior, and to suggest that trying to modify emotional memories/reactions via “talking therapy” may be fighting an uphill battle. The very existence of multiple memory systems (which suggests the possibility of multiple, parallel versions of many of one’s mental processes) also suggests that classical models of mental health, like that of Freud, are almost certainly too simple and thick-fingered to explain our psychic reality.

Any thoughts on our inner multiplicity?



posted by Friedrich at February 17, 2003


If you are interested in further differentiating these types of memory, you might want to have a look at "Healing and the Brain" by Alice G. Brand, published in the anthology Writing and Healing: Towards an Informed Practice.

It goes into great detail in respect to emotional memory as opposed to narrative (cognitive) memory from the perspective of brain mapping. Preliminary generalizations include that emotional memory is essentially atemporal: trauma is placed into memory before it is temporally situated. Hence, writing becomes a way of dislodging these associations by forcing temporal order upon them. Sense memory is also imagistic rather than linguistic; absent any means of order beyond stimulus and response, it knocks around in there and turns up in the strangest places of our consciousness.

I wrote about this topic a long time ago here, and mused on its connection with Aristotle's theory of memory here.

Posted by: Jeff Ward on February 17, 2003 6:16 PM

All very interesting, thanks. My instant, worth-nothing response is to cheer almost anything that complexifies the general picture and undermines simplistic explanations such as Freud's. When I pause for a second or two, you and the article you highlight have me enjoying rolling various memories -- and various ways of experiencing memories -- around. I suppose I'm infinitely suggestible, but it certainly does seem like there are many different kinds of memories -- as Jeff points out -- and also many different ways of having them. In a sense, couldn't it be said that memory underlies all our actions and experiences, that it's the underpainting everything else acquires meaning against? That, in a way, it's what enables meaning to occur?

Hey, suddenly I'm writing and thinking like Kundera. Which makes me want to be careful ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 18, 2003 12:15 PM

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