Memories, Emotions, and Brains


Brian

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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Comments

  1. Pen says

    Trigger warnings matter

    I agree with that, but it’s often very hard to know what will be a trigger for people. In my case I started as a kid being quite traumatized by the Holocaust education we were getting. I don’t know why we’re showing eleven year-olds piles of dead bodies but that’s another story. I’m not Jewish, but I went on to have a daughter who would have been quite Jewish enough for the Nazis and of course that didn’t improve my equanimity. I am quite literally a bag of adrenaline just typing this. The worst trigger for me is a picture of Anne Frank because my daughter’s the spitting image of her. Too bad for me because we have a social responsibility to discuss the Holocaust, I don’t think anybody’s going to give me a trigger warning before they show me Anne Frank and I have a responsibility to educate my daughter about the whole thing as calmly and rationally as I can – no scratch that – calmly and rationally whatever it takes. For someone else it could be red Ferraris because that’s the car that killed one of their loved ones. It’s particularly unfortunate if that happens to be their new neighbour’s dream car. It’s reallly, really awful but I think they may end up having to live with it. What should we do?

    I’m off to do some meditation now.

  2. ischemgeek says

    For this reason, certain formats of criticism take me back to verbal abuse I received as a kid. I get very upset, not because I can’t handle criticism, but because when someone says, “Why don’t you X?” or “You have to Y,” my brain starts playing abusive diatribes I won’t repeat out of fear of triggering someone else with a similar background. And then because I usually start crying, it starts playing more abusive diatribes and then everything snowballs. It’s not the criticism that bugs me, it’s what that particular format of criticism triggers that bugs me. I can take criticism, but I can’t take the abusive diatribes that have been hardwired into my head.

    So, I guess I should just say thanks for getting it? A lot of people don’t get that no, I can’t just shut that part of my brain off – once it’s started, it keeps going until it’s done and I can’t make it stop, I just have to ride the emotion wave till it’s over.

  3. smrnda says

    I know a few social psychologists so we’ve talked a lot about things like stereotype threat – it’s pretty much empirically proven that negative stereotypes about your demographic can affect how you perform, even when you consciously disbelieve them, so at this stage telling people they can ‘choose’ to ignore things like that (racist or sexist stereotypes and such) makes about as much sense as telling us we can ignore gravity if we feel like levitating.

  4. jesse says

    So in an effort to reduce the amount of things I would say that run contrary to how reality is structured…

    And people wonder why I have so little patience for philosophy :-)

    Re: trigger warnings. I know I am setting up for a flame war here, but I want to emphasize I am not “Just JAQing” because there are legit issues here.

    When I read a book, nobody puts “trigger warning” on the cover. I don’t expect it. I don’t think anyone does. I don’t see a giant “trigger warning” on the cover of my New York Times. And again, I don’t think we’d expect one. (“Trigger warning: anything and everything”)

    But I see it a lot on blogs, and the ostensible reason is to respect the feelings of people who have been traumatized. But I can’t read minds. I can’t know ahead of time if someone’s “trigger” is violence, sexual violence, sex itself, bad science fiction or whatever.

    I mean, look, I have never been traumatized by sexual assault or anything terribly serious. But I still have flashbacks to getting beaten up as a kid, where I suddenly have this flood of bad memories and I have to calm down for a bit. But if you were to ask me what triggers that I couldn’t tell you. It’s too random. I can never predict when it might happen. But again, maybe it’s less random when traumas are really serious.

    And given that most people put trigger warnings for mention of sexual violence or violence in general, I mean, how can anyone who isn’t blind and deaf avoid either of those topics for more than a couple of hours? Every television, every newspaper, advertisements — all of it contain those things. Violence in particular. I’ve seen trigger warnings for body image, and I’m like, “dude, have you walked outside lately? Watched TV for five minutes?”

    I am not saying “you should never account for people’s feelings” or “you should not feel this way.” I am wondering if trigger warnings matter as much as we think they do and if it’s just a way to assuage the feelings of the writer more than the person who might encounter the writing.

    And no, I am not one of those people who revels in being “un PC” for the sake of it. But I am conscious of a lot of self-delusion that I and presumably other people engage in when it comes to our motivations. I don’t ask for purity, but I try to be conscious of it.

    So I am not against trigger warnings. But I wouldn’t use them (well, maybe I would, but I just can’t think of a circumstance right now). Maybe because it feels, to me, like I am being awfully self-important by putting them up, if it makes any sense. “I’m going to show my consideration for potential readers who I have no idea about, because my writing is so profound it will elicit X reaction, more than the thousand other things you ran into today.” kind of thing. or, “Hey, you suffered some horrible trauma and I know exactly what your reaction will be even though I never suffered that.” (Brian, I am not saying you are being self-important, this is just the way I react when I contemplate it).

    I just feel kind of stupid doing it, like I am telling other people I know what they can handle or not. Especially since in any form of writing like a blog or a book the reader kind of has to seek you out, you know?

    Putting in lit-crit language that some folks seem to love, am I denying the agency of the people reading when I put one up?

  5. Brian Lynchehaun says

    @Jesse:

    When I read a book, nobody puts “trigger warning” on the cover.

    Blogs are neither books nor newspapers. Ostensibly, both books and newspapers tend to advertise what they are about.

    Books come in genres. They tend to have a blurb on the back (or on the inside leaf). They (pretty much universally) give you a sense of what they are about prior to your jumping in. This seems to be the opposite of the point you are trying to make.

    Newspapers are also well-known for being about Unhappy Things. This does not seem to be, in any way, analogous to blogs.

    Trigger warnings aren’t merely about dissuading people from reading, but primarily giving people an opportunity to brace themselves (if they need it). If they don’t need it: great.

    The cost to add it is minimal. The benefit to those who gain benefit is not marginal. This seems a simple equation.

    I can’t know ahead of time if someone’s “trigger” is violence, sexual violence, sex itself, bad science fiction or whatever.

    You can make a reasonably educated guess. This line of inquiry is quickly moving into “I can’t be arsed thinking about other people”.

    If you genuinely are unable to parse that people are more likely to be triggered by descriptions of violence than they are by descriptions of holo-decks, then I suggest you work hard on the “educated” part of the “educated guess”.

    And given that most people put trigger warnings for mention of sexual violence or violence in general, I mean, how can anyone who isn’t blind and deaf avoid either of those topics for more than a couple of hours?

    So fuck those guys?

    It may well be the case that a particular person will inevitably be triggered the moment they click to a page that is not my blog-post. Key point: *I* didn’t trigger them. *I* made a (and let’s be frank here) minimum effort to take into consideration the possibility that what I’m writing about could be emotionally disturbing to some.

    Your line of reasoning is: x is inevitable, therefore there is no ethical duty for me to refrain from doing x. This requires substantiation, and I highly doubt it can be substantiated.

    I am not saying “you should never account for people’s feelings” or “you should not feel this way.”

    You appear to be saying the former. If you don’t intend that, then I suggest you try to clarify your position.

    Maybe because it feels, to me, like I am being awfully self-important by putting them up, if it makes any sense. “I’m going to show my consideration for potential readers who I have no idea about, because my writing is so profound it will elicit X reaction, more than the thousand other things you ran into today.” kind of thing. or, “Hey, you suffered some horrible trauma and I know exactly what your reaction will be even though I never suffered that.” (Brian, I am not saying you are being self-important, this is just the way I react when I contemplate it).

    I suggest that you think about how your memory works. About how you associations work. About what happens when you day dream. The “profundity” of the writing is completely irrelevant. What matters is the association of the topic with the memory and emotional experience.

    I just feel kind of stupid doing it, like I am telling other people I know what they can handle or not.

    This… doesn’t seem to be how “warnings” work. It’s a “trigger warning“. It’s an opportunity for the reader to choose to continue reading, or to close the blog-post.

    am I denying the agency of the people reading when I put one up?

    How is saying “Hey, I’m going to talk about x. Heads up” denying agency?

  6. punchdrunk says

    If you don’t have a problem with the concept of movie, television, and video game ratings, if you don’t have a problem with warnings aimed at ‘younger or more sensitive viewers’, if you don’t have a problem with a newscaster giving a warning about the disturbing nature of an upcoming segment, then why are you singling out trigger warnings on blogs as ridiculous or self important?

  7. jesse says

    @punchdrunk — maybe because I am just an old fashioned luddite, I’ll cop to that.

    Like I said, I wondered how much of it is because we want to make ourselves feel better. Not a bad thing, and I stated pretty explicitly I wasn’t against doing it. But maybe it’s the non-abstract reasoning part of me. (I’ll cop to being a guy who says “if it can’t smack you in the head like a brick then it doesn’t exist.” on my less patient days.)

    Maybe it’s a part of me that doesn’t “get” the interactivity thing on blogs.

    And yes, books often give you some idea what it’ about. I get that.

    But like, if I am doing a blog on the politics of the Middle East, I am going to be taking about the horrors of the current wars going on, you know?

    Maybe it’s an old bit that I remember when I was younger, about not being able to take control of other people’s addictions (there was a time when I had friends who had this kind of problem). Like, I can’t do anything about whether a guy I knew decided to shoot heroin and go off the deep end, and all the shit I tried to Help Him Out was never going to work, and at some point you have to say you can’t know or control a damned thing.

    And maybe it’s part of the whole thing that logically speaking you can be “triggered” by anything — I have met people with PTSD (back in the day it was mostly people from the Vietnam era) who could be “triggered” by literally anything — it was so individual that you couldn’t generalize at all. The parameter space, as they say in math, got too big.

    That’s why I say I feel stupid doing it. I keep remembering one of those guys saying “what the hell do you know about it?” Maybe it’s not rational, and I’ll freely admit it.

  8. Brian Lynchehaun says

    But like, if I am doing a blog on the politics of the Middle East, I am going to be taking about the horrors of the current wars going on, you know?

    No, I don’t.

    This comment makes sense if and only if talking about overarching policy in middle east is precisely the same as discussing in precise detail what happens as bullet enters the body of a Hamas attacker. Because a blog can be on the topic of the former without ever discussing the latter, and will pretty much never need a trigger warning.

    If you are going to continue to conflate these two completely different things, then I can see how this issue is going to be confusing for you. But there’s nothing that I can do, from this end, to help you with that. That’s an insistence you’re going to have to get over on your own.

  9. cee says

    “but these antiquated forms of publishing don’t use them! why should i join a wider and more compassioante social awareness by prefacing my work with a few alerts that could seriously ruin someone’s day if they encountered them without warning?”

    that’s what you’re saying, jesse, and it’s not a good look.

    and as for trigger warnings on literary fiction – that day’s coming, i’m pretty sure. yeah it might mean i don’t want to read sombone’s book becuse it’s centered on a rape. but that’s better than me reading the book without warning, encountering the content, and then after the dust clears from my one to three day episode that may or may not require communication with a mental health professional, my going forth and making sure that people know about that rape in the angriest and most scathing ways, and then never pick up another book by that author again, and continue grudge forever.

    with a trigger warning on a book, i can say, oh not this one, maybe the next. and there’s nothing to get pissed about. maybe a particular author can’t stop writing about rape and so i never read that person’s books, but oh well, there are a lot of books out there. i know it doesn’t quite make sense because you’ve never had the experience of being triggered. but trust me, it pretty much ruins your day(s). and the presence of a trigger warning on a work of fiction doesn’t have an affect on you if you don’t need them, so please stop getting in the way of people who do by invalidating their experiences as trivial and their own fault

    because i assure you, i didn’t request any of the traumatic experiences i survived. given a choice I would have refused them. but those expeeriences do mean that I appreciate trigger warnings on stuff i might be interested in reading.

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