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Memories, Emotions, and Brains


One of the things I noticed when taking my Philosophy undergrad was how 17th century Philosophers (and Philosophers of other periods too) often made grandiose claims about how people thought about the world. Often their 100% certain proclamations were refuted by other Philosophers who were also 100% certain about how the world worked. A particular example of this would be the general commitment to the Platonic notion of how we are born with a complete set of concepts (believed and accepted by most philosophers prior to Locke), and then the commitment to the complete opposite, the ‘blank slate’ (Locke’s tabula rasa), the idea that we are born with zero ideas. Turns out that biology is more complex than that. Philosophy of Mind makes slow progress.

So in an effort to reduce the amount of things I would say that run contrary to how reality is structured, I spent about a quarter of my undergrad in Psychology classes, mostly focused on the biological structure of the brain. I found it interesting, and it’s definitely something I’d recommend to anyone wishing to better understand… well, people. I learned a lot of interesting things, most of which ran counter to folk psychology. One of the most interesting things I learned was something that has become a truism in Neuroscience: “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

[Side note: the following is, in several ways, speculative. It is a fact that New Experience A often causes us to recall a memory of Experience B. It is also a fact that the firing of Neuronal Set A causes Neuronal Set B to fire. My tying together of the subjective experience with the underlying neuroscience is, however, speculative. I share this because it seems plausible, and it has some explanatory power]

What does this mean? Well, different sections of your brain handle different things. The visual processing area, for example, is physically separate from the auditory processing area, which is physically separate again from your language processing centres (yup, more than one). But when you see a car driving on the street, you see and hear it simultaneously. This triggers a set of neurons in your visual area. Over time, as these same neurons (corresponding to shape, colour, size, etc) trigger each and every time you see a car, this particular set of neurons essentially corresponds to the visual idea of ‘car’. The engine sounds will likewise generate an auditory equivalent of this. And those two areas will often trigger together as you see and hear cars. What becomes really quite interesting is that when you see a car, the ‘car’ auditory area in your brain may trigger because due to the common firing of the two areas, they now often fire together.Similarly, merely hearing the word ‘car’ may trigger car-related memories.

“But Brian,” I hear many of ye retort, ”not once has my reading here caused an image of a car to appear in my head…” And that’s a fair point. While ‘car’ is a handy example, it doesn’t really work for evoking a subjective experience in a reader: because we so often experience *only* the sound of a car (around us, out of eye sight, or when we’re in a car), or *only* the sight of a car (through a window, or on TV with different audio), these two sets of neurons are unlikely to be trained to wire together (for anyone old enough to read this blog post). Because these sights and sounds are *so* common, our brain has been moulded to refrain from triggering these together.

Better examples are going to be the more rare experiences, where the different impressions are more solidly interconnected, and thus much more individual-specific, but I can lay some out in broad strokes: is there a smell, or sight, or sound that ‘reminds’ you of a past experience? Your experience of that event triggers neurons in the visual/auditory areas, which are ‘tied’ to the visual/auditory neurons for your previous experience so they are automatically triggered too. Interestingly, the more you revisit that spot, the more these neurons will be triggered directly separately of the ‘memory’ neurons, and the more the brain will learn that these events are *not* connected, so the weaker will the subsequent triggering be: the more you seek to evoke that memory in this particular way, the more difficult it will be to do so in the future.

Things become even more interesting when we bring the emotional centre of the brain into the mix. We are always experiencing an emotional state, even if that state is something we consider to be ‘emotionally neutral’: that state has a neurological representation in our brain. Likewise happiness, sadness and so on. The triggering of these neurons along with other neurons wires all of them together too: so happy memories are, quite literally, making you happy when you recall them. The converse is also true: studies have shown that when people are happy, they more easily recall memories that they consider ‘happy memories’ than ‘sad memories’, and when sad, they more easily recall ‘sad memories’ than ‘happy memories’. So not only do images and sounds trigger memories of emotional states (which *are* emotional states), but emotional states can trigger memories of images and sounds (which *are* images and sounds).

My use of the word ‘trigger’ is neither incidental nor accidental.

Furthermore, the more intense the emotional state at the time that the original event was encoded, the more intense the memory evoked when associated neurons are triggered. And to complicate things more, your cognitive centres are not in charge here: when those memories are triggered, you are going to experience them whether you want to or not. Feeling happy that they are triggered? That feeling of happiness will be re-encoded into those memories, strengthening the connection between those feelings and that memory. Feeling distressed that you are thinking about a particular event? That feeling of distress will be re-encoded too. Basically, happy memories can (note: not “will”, but “can”) become more happy over time, and distressing memories more distressing. Your cognitive centre is basically along for the ride, dispelling (for some of us) the illusion of what part of our brain, exactly, is “in charge”.

All of this taken together goes a long way to explaining why people often react they way they do to tragedy, to harsh words, to upsetting imagery. As I mentioned above, this is a speculative story, intended to tie together the subjective experience with the neuronal research currently underway. But it’s not ‘warp drive technology’ speculative…

Trigger warning: imagery related to suicide.

An extremely good friend of mine once walked in on his brother while the latter was attempting to take his own life, by hanging. Years later, we were all avid role-players and the guy running the game, in order to raise the emotional stakes, had us walk into a room where hanging from the ceiling… And my friend was up from the table and out the door before the sentence was finished.

Because we do not get to choose what memories we experience, we do not get to choose what emotional states we experience, and we do not get to divert our emotionally intense thought processes once they start. We can not simple ‘get over it’, or ‘not feel that way’, or turn off our responses. Cries for us to do so, to ‘grow up’, to ‘stop being so emotional’, are demands that, frankly, run contrary to the biological facts of reality, and the beliefs that we can do all of these things are part of the folk psychology that 1) many of us build up inductively over the course of our lives, and 2) is completely wrong.

Trigger warnings matter, and being aware of the likely emotional responses to our words and deeds also matters. Not because of some abstract, ephemeral notion of ‘it’s mean to hurt other’s feelings’ or the polemical ‘only assholes don’t care about the feelings of others’ (true, but still polemical). They matter because science. And self-described members of a self-described rational community with claimed commitments to science will be judged by their actions, not merely their claims.


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