November 29, 2007

When We Change Our Thoughts, Our Memories Change

Last week, I stayed with friends over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and found myself reminiscing about my parents a lot, telling uplifting and funny stories about our lives together. My friends found this remarkable; they have known me for years and never heard me say so many nice things about my mother and father. (I haven't heard me do that very much either!)

Apparently, in recent years, there has been a shift in the way I remember life events. In the past, the sad stories crowded out the happy ones. I knew I had an unhappy childhood, that nobody loved me, that there was something wrong with me, that my parents did everything wrong, and that I was scarred for life by broken romances, physical problems, nasty bosses, cult brainwashing, emotional and sexual abuse, the 9-11 terror attacks. These days, I remember a lot more of the "happy dreams" much so that, when I'm reminded of my former ways of being and thinking, it's as if I'm experiencing my life as a movie I once saw, or a book I once read, in which there was a character I no longer recognize as myself. There's no denial in it; it's just that I don't see a problem. You could call it "post-traumatic peace order." And that's amazing, because for about 30 years, I was a poster child for PTSD.

Why are upsetting events generally more memorable than happy or neutral ones? I just read this in the December 1, 2007 issue of Bottom Line newsletter:

"Negative emotions, such as fear and sadness, cause increased activity in a part of the brain linked to memories, so bad memories are recalled easily. Positive emotions don't have the same effect. Possible reason: In evolutionary terms, it makes sense to focus on potentially threatening information to protect against future dangers." —Elizabeth Kensinger, PhD., assistant professor, department of psychology, Boston College

A subquestion of Question Three of The Work, "What do you get for holding this belief?"—what is the payoff, or how does believing this thought serve you?—speaks to this phenomenon. The most common answer to this question is, in a word, protection. "I don't have to face the unknown," for example, or "I reject myself before he rejects me," or "I'll be prepared for the worst," or "It motivates me to work hard and avert disaster," or "I shield myself from blame."

Perhaps when we realize that the motive for holding stressful beliefs doesn't eliminate the fear—and therefore, the beliefs don't actually protect us from anything—there's no real reason to cling to them. At this point we can also notice that there was nothing to protect against: in this moment, all is well, unless and until we say differently. The "negative" memory loses its power to direct the course of our relationships and our lives.

We get further reinforcement from the turnarounds, where we provide genuine examples, from our experience, that demonstrate the opposite of our original beliefs. As we continue to inquire, thoughts that used to be habitual don't arise as frequently or with as much "charge."

I'm no neurobiologist, but I'd wager that this process of inquiry somehow overrides or re-circuits the brain's hard-wiring for memory so that there is no need to vigilantly refer to what was previously so upsetting. That is why the memory itself can appear to change.

Case in point: while staffing the School for The Work not long ago, I heard Byron Katie give some specifics about how confused she had been before "getting a clue" in 1986. She said, for example, that if she moved one hand one way, she would have to move the other hand the same way; otherwise she felt unbalanced. She also shared that there was always a song in her head. She mentioned a few more OCD symptoms she'd had, and as I listened to her, I remembered, as if in a dream, a miserable and frightened 43-year-old woman attending her first School for The Work in 2001, who'd had the exact same "quirks" since childhood. Katie was describing herself prior to her "undoing," and she was also describing me, prior to questioning my thoughts. I'd forgotten some of those behaviors and symptoms I used to have.

Later I told her this, and also that I used to have to breathe in rhythm to the songs in my head.

"Oh, sweetheart," she responded, with tears in her eyes, "the breathing thing." She'd had it too...and, like me, she had forgotten.

Lately the "earworm' (repetitive song in the head) has come back to visit; triggered, perhaps, by a few weeks of rehearsing tunes for a show I performed in. As I lie awake at night, waiting for sleep to come, a song is there, or it's not; it's not a problem. I am being breathed; there's no rhythm to it, I'm not doing it. The memory of a song sings itself. I see my mother and father in my mind. They are doing what they did—is it true?—and I notice, as I never did when they were alive, how much I love them.

©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.


Heidi Fischbach said...

Oh Carol, it's just another thought, I know, but your article on thoughts and memories was just the best! (Coming from a faithful subscriber who loves reading what you write!). The gentleness toward OCD things, well, it just breaks my heart wide open. The noticing how it's changed, how you can lie in bed and have the song in your head and it's, as you say, "no problem." A couple of nights recently I've gone to bed, much later than usual, and I put my head on the pillow and my eyes just don't shut. It's like they are saying: "hello! now what?" And I too have noticed curiosity and laughter where in other days I might have freaked and added insomnia to my list of disorders. I've noticed a curious thing during my massage sessions too... I'm no shrink--thank you Jesus!--but as school kids say, takes one to know one! I have a client who's body in general and neck in particular, are very rigid. (Actually come to think of it, this could be a few of my clients!) It's as if before any movement can flow from her body there needs to be a check-in with her head to see if that would be OK, and then and only then--when the general in the head has signed the releases--will the body move. I notice how I've changed toward her. I've been in the receiving end of massage or even with friends talking to me who might say or insinuate in some way: "Just relax! Or just leg go!" They mean no harm, only good, I'm sure, but I notice I don't say that any more. One day it must have clicked that if it were as easy as that we'd all be entirely kink-less and at ease. But the change I've noticed in me, while working with this and similar "rigid" clients, is that I'm no longer trying to even "make it relax"... instead, allowing for a space, a hold, a movement in which whatever it is can be exactly as it is. Like a meeting the body with understanding, with listening, with curiosity. Like a gentle inquiry with my hands. Like the attention of someone at the edge of a forest where I've seen a shy animal... if I pounce on it, it would only run away. I'm constantly humbled by the perfect balance of even a body that in clinical terms we'd call hypertonic or contracted or plain old tense. And from there, tiny little changes happen and I'm not in charge. Things always change. How amazing.

John A said...

I'm not a neurobiologist either, but I've studied a few, and I think you have the right idea about how The Work changes our thought processes.

When we experience something that challenges the agendas of our survival programs, it gets filed into memory as a negative to be avoided or attacked if it is seen again. However, we have a mechanism designed to make certain that this wasn't a mistake (was it a snake, or maybe a rope?). All of our negative experiences repeatedly get brought up for review (there is no need to review positives). If, upon each subsequent screening of the event, there is no doubt, the experience gets refiled with an increase level of certainty that fear is justified. However, if the memory is questioned at this point, the opposite happens--the level of certainty is reduced and the memory is refiled with a lower priority.

The Work is an elegant process for taking control of this normal mental process. When we work on the painful stories of the past we can permanently downgrade their status and remove them from our mind's review list. And, when we work on our experiences throughout our day, we keep them from ever achieving negative status. They don't ever get into the review system. They don't ever result in painful stories.

Thank you for this forum and for sharing yourself and your insights so freely.

Carol L. Skolnick said...

Heidi: Hey, stop showing me up in my own blog, haha! Seriously, what you wrote is so beautifully stated, thank you for sharing your heart. Yes, bodywork as meditation! I'm imagining how lovely it would be to go to a massage therapist (you) who is aware of and perhaps gently suggests to notice where I am holding tension, so that I can develop non-judgmental awareness around the opposed to telling me to let it go. Gosh, we'd quickly invoke "client's rights" with a facilitator who told us to drop anything!

John: Speaking of elegance, thank you for your elegant way of describing the phenomena of mind and memory. You grokked me perfectly.

pia but you can call me phyllis said...

You would tell me stories about your parents and while there was some outward negativity--the love always came through.

More for your father, but you seemed angry at your mother--more than not loving her--as if there was unfinished business and now there isn't

But the day of the blackout when we were in Sheepshead Bay--your love was very apparent

I seemed to have let go of the past--am finally putting my apartment on the market and moving to where my Jewish parents feared Jews even driving through--South Carolina

Always assumed it would be California but South Carolina is cheap and beautiful with some great people--found you in the personal development blogs

Am still courting destiny

But with weird experimental fiction