Memory and Hope: Two Sides of the Same Neural Coin

Posted: November 29, 2015 in Uncategorized
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I’m in the process of reading The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy (Dutton, 2015). The research delves into what we in the West have referred to as having a “self.” That idea would be parallel to the earlier concept of a soul, some inward territory that constitutes our identity as a person. It is taken for granted that we have one, this self. But those who investigate what actually happens in the brain and even our mind or consciousness pose deeper questions.

Certainly we have a perceptual capacity to monitor our environment through our senses. We have a parallel ability to scan ourselves – our own bodies, feelings, even think about our thoughts. This would be the classic divide between “being” a body and “having” one. We define ourselves socially through our interactions. We understand ourselves as being one kind of creatures among other creatures in a rather large palette of nature. But most of all we define ourselves by our narratives, our memories of our stories. In the deepest sense we even define our personal stories in relation to other stories – cultural stories and religious mythologies.

If who we are has most to do with our narratives, our stories, then memory is essential to self-hood. Who am I? I am the stories I selectively remember. And what if I lose my memory, such as through Alzheimers or some other dementia? Anyone who has witnessed that closely and personally knows; my identity as a person is lost.

But the past – as far as the brain knows and functions – is not just the past. Numerous studies have shown that “the very same brain networks that are responsible for remembering past events are also recruited when constructing future scenarios.”(45) What happens is that these key brain regions in the medial temporal lobe are used for both memory and imagining a possible future. We construct likely future stories out of the raw stuff of past experience. Those are the building blocks of future anticipation.

That is why those who lose memory lose both identity and any sense of hope. How can I hope if I don’t know what can be hoped for? Persons who have positive past foundations automatically assume that the future can manifest more of the same. Those who have disastrous past memories have difficulty imagining anything other than those. Memory and hope are integrally related.

As regards spiritual or theological dimensions, a vital hope may be limited or encouraged by powerful past dynamics. If past memory is an inhibitor when it comes to imagining a future, then healing and clearing the past is crucial to that happening. Many scenes in the Gospels include Jesus healing a person who has been stuck in time with some unseen spiritual bondage. They are freed to imagine another future and another self in the world.

The other spiritual intervention involves that same physiology and spirituality. If a new, compelling, comprehensive vision of life is absorbed and internalized then a new individual future becomes a possibility as well. The power of the imaginative future provides content that the individual “self” did not have from its own memory. A new story has been inserted and along with it hope.

If the same processor aspects of the brain are cross utilized for both remembering and anticipating, don’t they inform and shape one another? And if memory sets the stage for either hope or dread, can’t the reshaping influence of a compelling vision of the future work back the other direction? In other words, can’t a revolutionary future heal the past?

Memory may ground us in or chain us to our infinitely many past episodes. But a compelling vision of the future can set us free from what can seem like a life sentence.

O Come, O come Emmanuel … and ransom captive Israel …

These kind of things happen all the time.

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