Making Memories

memory brainQuick. What did you do last weekend? What did you wear yesterday? What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Can you remember? Did you have to scrunch your eyebrows and think? Did you have to check the laundry basket? Did you confuse last weekend with the one before? (Frank is always asking me how many eggs I picked up today and I usually say something like, “I got three, no wait, was that yesterday or today?”) Ever notice how it all runs together somehow?

Now how about this: where were you on Tuesday, September 11, 2001?

Unless you’re under 18 years old, I bet you can tell me where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and what you were feeling with a fair amount of detail even though that day was almost 12 years ago.

What’s the difference?

Obviously, September 11th was a spectacularly tragic and historic day. Of course we remember it. But what is it in our brain that makes us remember it? I would argue that there are some specific aspects of that day that made it memorable:
1. Unusual – None of us had ever experienced anything like it. Everything about the event was brand new to us.
2. Sensory richness – There were so many images, words, sounds, feelings on that day – all our senses were alive.
3. Directed attention – We were paying attention to what was unfolding. For better or worse, we were riveted by the experience and it had our attention.
By recognizing these things and by understanding how the brain works we can make any situation memorable.

Our brains are designed in layers (for more details on this, see Mindfulness & The Brain by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel, especially Chapter 5): the bottom layers are the more primitive, pre-verbal parts of the brain which take in direct experience from our senses. The top layers are the language-based parts of the brain which name and label things and experiences. As children, everything is new, so most of our experiences are integrated “bottom up.” We see a bright, fluttery thing moving in the air and we take it all in (bottom brain) and then we learn that the word for it is “butterfly” (top brain). When we’re young, our brains are mostly integrated “bottom up.”

As we get older, our brains use more “top down” integration as we have more experiences and name and categorize them. This is a great and important function of the top brain (the most human part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex) which allows us to function with efficiency. Without it, we would never make it out of the house in the morning, we’d be so engrossed in the smell of the coffee and the taste of the Cheerios! The problem is that over time, our brains shift to a “top down” dominance so that we spend much of our time on auto-pilot in the “been there, done that” mode.

On that morning in September – the unusual, sensory rich, morning in which we focused out attention on what was happening – our brains were integrated “bottom up” rather than “top down.” Instead of watching the same old Today Show with its usual parade of unmemorable, fluff stories, it was a day of strong sensation and image and rapt attention. As Dan Siegel points out, “bottom up” integration is the neurobiology of mindfulness. If we can disrupt the top down dominance of our adult brains, we can make any situation memorable. You can do it right now, by awakening your senses and paying attention to what is happening right now. Feel your body, take a deep breath and smell the moment, listen to the sounds (cicadas, perhaps), notice what is unique about this moment in time. Nicely done. You just made a memory.

Focused attention is also key to awakening neural plasticity at any age. Until very recently, scientists believed that the adult brain could not grow or change. Neuroscientists now know that the brain can change throughout its lifespan. The ideal conditions for neural plasticity are focused attention (awareness), aerobic exercise, good sleep and good nutrition. Most particularly, awareness is, as Dr. Siegel says “the scalpel that lets you remold the structure of the brain.” In that way, it is absolutely true to say that we were all changed by 9/11. It is also true that with its focus on awareness, aerobic movement, and emphasis on breaking habits, Nia is also an excellent way to make memories and build neural plasticity!

But it doesn’t have to take a tragedy of such epic proportions to make something memorable. All it takes is our focused attention. The more we can let the lower parts of the brain receive information through direct experience, the more memorable any situation will be. This week, we can use the practice of Nia or any kind of mindful movement (preferable that which gets your heart pumping and your muscles working) to encourage neural plasticity and to make a memory.

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