Bitter memories made sweet
There’s a dove outside the window. Crwoooo… Or is it a pigeon? I never can tell.
Crwoooo… crwoooo… I hate doves.
And pigeons. I detest that passive-aggressive swooning from the gutters and telephone poles.
My dislike of these avian critters festered out of an all-too-long stint in boarding school. Nine years of it, in fact. Nine years of Sundays.
The weekly routine: frog-marched to church for a few Hail Marys, frog-marched back; lunching on something ostensibly containing roast, with boiled veggies, followed by a remnant ‘berg of ice-cream lifted from a bowl of melted runoff.
In those arid Sunday afternoons, with the neighbourhood smothered beneath a post-prandial quiet and all the kids under strict house arrest, the sound of doves crwoooo-ing would wash indoors from the branches of a nearby pine tree.
And those pines! Their splinter-sharp needles puncturing the sky, their twisted and gnarled roots heaving up through the tar paving, sticky globs of resin rupturing through the bark and bleeding down on to the ground below.
It wasn’t so much the place that did it—a dusty Eastern Cape town—as the loveless and authoritarian desertscape, with its razor-wire discipline and unyielding boundaries.
All these years later the memory of it is like someone turning on an egg beater in my guts. And that bloody crwoooo-ing is what triggers it.
But scientists might one day be able to wipe unhappy memories like this from our brains. They’ve had the first breakthrough with lab mice.
By artificially boosting the amount of a certain chemical produced by the brain as part of its memory retrieval process, scientists were able to remove specific memories from the mice brains—in one case the memory of receiving a small electric shock to the feet; in another, receiving a new toy.
Even a month after receiving the shock, mice with the elevated levels of the chemical did not freeze up when they returned to the place where they’d been shocked, suggesting they had no memory of it.
It’s a long way off from having a human application. But scientists believe this opens the door to being able one day to remove, with surgical precision, the kinds of memories which bring on symptoms of post-traumatic stress—memories of war, torture, child abuse, the traumatic loss of a family member.
But how long before it moves from the therapeutic treatment room and into the realm of the cosmetic? Imagine a world in which rich people can pop off for a quick outpatient procedure to erase the bitter recollection of a recently divorced spouse.
There’s also the matter of how much you and I are made up of our memories. Being able to remember unpleasantness or pain is part of learning and survival: if you touch a hot stove top, you get burned, so you don’t do it again; that creepy man beat you last time, so avoid him in future.
The failures are as important as the successes: the squirming adolescent lessons about navigating social hierarchies, the broken hearts, failed attempts, crumpled relationships. They’re as much the patchwork of you and me as the mended hearts and flourishing relationships are. We probably work harder towards keeping relationships whole because we remember what it means to fight and ruin them. I’m not sure we should be rewriting the scripts of our remembered lives.
When I die—when this heart stops thumping—the electro-chemical impulses that keep all those memories stored in my brain will fizzle and cool. Fwoooosh. Gone. Any sense of “me” will disappear with my remembered self. I’m not sure I want to pre-empt my own demise, even just a little.
And will the removal of the memory be enough to clear up the nervous ticks which it triggered in the first place? A shell-shocked soldier comes back from war, twitching and wretched. His memory is cleared of the grizzle and blood and guilt. But will that be enough to cure the post-trauma symptoms? Or will the nervous twitches prowl in the corners of his psyche like an angry ghost, leaving him raging and angry, but unable to remember why?
There’s something very yin and yang about suffering. The dark moods highlight the happy ones. The crappy days elevate the good ones. The sad memories make the nice ones all the sweeter.
Now my Sunday afternoons are spent meandering up to Constantia Neck on a bicycle, or trotting through Kirstenbosch, or sprawled on the lounge floor with the weekend papers and a dozing cat. Maybe I do these things to exorcise the smell of resin which clings stickily to the air in my mind. Or it’s to escape that wretched crwoooo-ing. I’m sure the forlorn Sundays of my childhood have driven me to find more joyful ways to wrap up a weekend - for better or worse.