Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Memories, Sights, Sounds and Smells

Brain, computer artImage via Wikipedia Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke emotionally charged memories. A new study in rats suggests why: The same part of the brain that's in charge of processing our senses is also responsible, at least in part, for storing emotional memories. For instance, the smell of turkey could conjure up a smile as it reminds you of a joyful Thanksgiving, while the sound of a drill could make you start in fear, since it may be linked to your last dental appointment. Previously, scientists had not considered these sensory brain regions all that important for housing emotional memories, said study researcher Benedetto Sacchetti, of the National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin, Italy. (Link)
While the new findings are preliminary, they suggest these sensory brain regions might play a role in certain fear and anxiety disorders, Sacchetti said. For instance, dysfunction in these areas might make it hard for someone to differentiate between sights, sounds and other stimuli that they should and should not be afraid of, resulting in generalized fear and anxiety.
On the one hand, this is a bit of old news... people have noticed these correlations between the senses and memories.  The great French writer, Marcel Proust, has written about these memories in a famous passage about the smell of madelines.

On the other hand, it is new news, in that the scientist have actually pinpointed the exact mapping between the sensory portion of the brain and the seat of memories. The amygdala is involved here as well.
What does this mean for me?  I have spent much of my life cut off from the link between my memories and my senses.  The old trick of reviving memories by  trying to  remember what  something looked like, sounded like, or smelled like is apparently a bit skewed.
I also, wonder, if having a dysfunction in sensory brain areas, might lead to being a bit more jumpy when new stimuli suddenly dart into view.  For a long time, lousy peripheral vision meant that I could get quite frightened while driving when suddenly something would dart into my field of view.
Or, not having a good sense of hearing meant that I would really jump and start to flail if someone came up behind me while I was deep in thought.  I literally would start to take a swing at the intruder.  It usually happened in the office cubicle when I was working hard at something and really concentrating.  Fortunately, for the intruder, they were always too far away to actually get hit!  But I would jump and utter a short scream and flail. 
In terms of generalized anxiety that the article mentioned:  It’s the thinking, thinking, thinking, dwelling, dwelling, ruminating, ruminating, and inability to shut the mind off that so incapacitates the person.(Link), I find that I have done this ruminating often enough as I walked in a world that was flat or in a path that for me was a constricted tunnel.  My mind would latch onto something and then go back over and over and over on the same subject time after time until another anxiety or depression would take over. 

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