Snow! Glorious snow! I just don’t understand the complainers out there on this one, I truly don’t. Seems to me that some people will use the weather as an excuse to complain about anything. Yesterday afternoon, I heard someone complain about the snow that was on the way. This person said they didn’t mind winter so much but that they hated snow. Hated it! I asked them if they had to drive, go anywhere, do anything and, you know what? They didn’t! I said, well, well, then just sit inside your cozy house and get ready to watch the spectacular, winter show that Nature is about to put on! What’s there to hate about snow if you aren’t driving in it? OK, shoveling is maybe not everyone’s favorite but it is exercise and, depending on the length of your driveway, gives you plenty of time to daydream. Or, plenty of time to reflect.
Today is the last Monday of 2010 and, personally, I think the snow makes it grand. This morning I got up early and bundled up in coat, hat, mittens, scarf and boots, camera in pocket, to trudge up to the 52 Mondays photo spot.
My driveway was still unplowed and there was no way I’d be getting out. A heavy snowfall is a magical thing to behold with your eyes but I especially love its sound. The close, muffled sound of the outdoors, especially in the more rural area where I live, is like being inside of your own head with your ears plugged up. Just breathing in a quiet, snowy place reverberates in your own skull in kind of the same way it does when you are underwater. The baffle of a blanket of deep snow magnifies the smallest of sounds–the clicking and creaking of branches, the shuffle of dead leaves in the wind, the call of a bird–snuggling all those sound waves right up against you.
It’s a good place to meditate on stuff.
Next week many people will be making resolutions. I, by the way, am not much for resolutions and prefer the more Nike-esque approach of “just do it,” rather than waiting for an arbitrary day to do things differently. But, I do, however, like the reflective time that often leads up to New Year’s Day and the collective remembering that happens among us. On Facebook, many of my friends are making their lists of favorite music from 2010, film sites are listing the best movies of the year in preparation of the Oscars, a variety of publications are showcasing their “year in pictures” portfolios, culinary sites are featuring their best recipes of the year and every manner of social, political and cultural stories that happened in 2010 are being mined for the ten that were the best. We want to remember these things.
One of the gifts I gave my family this year was a box of DVDs made from all of our old tape footage. Watching events that took place almost two decades ago was a little like conjuring up a dream; it was hard to believe that what I was seeing had actually happened. For my children, to see their mother before they were born was like looking at a person they didn’t really know, and I was jokingly told that I seemed nicer back then! Well, they could be right I suppose but let’s not forget difference between non-parenthood and parenthood. Get back to me, kids, after you have been pooped on, puked on, nearly caused to have an aneurysm by a double-meltdown-temper-tantrum in the JC Penny photography studio, or discovered a ripe, pile of wet bath towels that the dog has been sleeping on for a week in the corner of your room. Frankly, I think I’m usually pretty nice. Anyway, it is always strange for me to realize what we remember and what we forget and I am fascinated by the way different stimuli–smells, tastes, sounds–affect our capacity to remember things. An exercise that I like to do with adult workshoppers is to give them about 60 seconds to pull out the first and strongest memory from their mind and then write about it. I encourage them to dig deep, to try to find something from when they were very young if they can. It’s not easy and, of course, time polishes all these memories of ours and fills in the blanks as we carry them through the years. Our brains are constantly at work, linking and unlinking, remembering and forgetting and scientists spend lifetimes trying to understand what makes these things happen inside all that grey matter.
I love movies that explore the relationships and boundaries between and time, memory and dream. Favorites that come to mind are Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Memento, Bladerunner, The Machinist, Solaris, The Fountain, Vanilla Sky, Shutter Island, and most recently, Inception, which I have already watched twice in the last week in an effort to unravel what was real and what was a dream. The magic of what happens in our sleeping and waking brain, and how it affects what we remember is, perhaps, at the heart of what it means to be human.
A recent Times article tells the story of a study on a man named Henry Gustav Molaison, who lost his memory from the point of a surgical procedure but retained everything else in it prior to that date. His hippocampus had been removed in an effort to stop seizures. If you have been to any of my lectures you know I have a fondness for the hippocampus, which is not only our brain’s pleasure center, but the on/off switch for memory and cognitive mapping. The researchers who studied Molaison found that, even though his hippocampus was gone, he was actually able to construct new memory information through the tissue that surrounded the hippocampus site and his compulsive crossword puzzling. The scientists gave him specially designed crossword puzzles to see if he could add information to old memories if they targeted specific knowledge through the puzzles, and they found that his brain was, indeed, able to update previously remembered information as long as it had some connection to the present, even though the part of his brain responsible for remembering was gone. Emotion was critical in creating this update, as were the puzzles themselves and, at some point when Molaison stopped the study puzzles, this new, post-surgical information was lost, not stored.
Anyone who has ever experienced a loved-one with dementia or Alzheimer’s knows how tragic memory loss can be. As scientists continue to try to find the key to preventing this devastating brain deterioration, one thing that seems to keep proving itself out is that practices like exercise and healthy eating have amazing and measurable effects on our brains. High HDL Cholesterol (that’s the “Happy” one, folks) has been found to have a strong correlation to lower risk of Alzheimer’s. A recent study on exercise and GPAs came to a data-rich conclusion: vigorous exercise can make us smarter and help us remember things. And, I have written before about the ways that really old people have filled their lives with physical and intellectual activity, friends and hobbies that keep their brains firing away and positively influencing the way their bodies age. Forgetting… it’s nasty business, right?
So, I was intrigued to find a story about a man who, in fact, remembered everything. The story is told in a book called “The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory,” by Alksandr R. Luria, the Soviet psychologist who studied this man, only referred to as “S.” S had the ability to remember everything and, though I have not read the book yet, it appears as though he was able to do this through an intense and idiosyncratic form of synesthesia, which is the ability of our brains to use one type of cognitive stimuli to create another cognitive, memorable block of information. Our brains do this without us even having to try and this process is related to those memory-linked smells, tastes and sounds I was thinking about. Most of the time, these synthesized cognitive blocks need a nudge, especially after many years. On Saturday, my friend pulled out a vintage box of cereal that I hadn’t thought about for years but, seeing this quirky image took me right back to the 70s. Anyone remeber Quisp? Now that I look at it all these years later, the flesh-colored propeller is actually a bit disturbing, and nevermind the ingredients, but the sight of the box, along with a handful of its sugary, vanilla taste took me right back to my own childhood.
Though, it turns out that remembering everything could be a curse and, in the case of this guy, S, all this hyper-synesthesia actually made it difficult for him to function like a normal person because everything was connected, stored inside his amazing brain and linked and re-linked to everything else. S never needed any nudges because it was always right there on the surface, ready to jump out at him with every piece of information that existed in his mind. He could barely read anything because every word would call up every memory that was connected to it, whether actually related by event or not. Imagine a cup of coffee between this guy and Molaison!
So, this snowy day turns out to be a great day for burrowing in, for remembering the past or creating some new memories for the future. Next week I’m going to talk about some fun ways that I have been exercising my own memory in creative ways and share some of the most inspirational creative people I discovered this year in case you’d like to add them to your 2011. But for now, let’s just say it’s a reflective time of the year… 2010 is almost over and a brand, new year is just around the bend. The stimuli in the air this morning was pretty rich for memorable cognitive blocks, by the way. Rather than that muffled, baffled silence that accompanies some heavy snowfalls, it was the whipping, swirling, unrelenting winter wind that made it impossible to hear anything but the freight train of WHOOSH! It was really, really COLD but I didn’t hate it, and I will tell you that it was truthfully a really pleasant walk. I saw, heard, smelled, felt and even tasted winter this morning in a way I could not have done from inside, and I got in a three-mile walk. As the wind stung my cheeks, I recalled Wisconsin winters from my childhood, the frigid and blustery lakeside walks as a graduate student in Cleveland, and the bundling up of children who have sledded down our hill here in New Jersey. I even thought of the photographers from the BBC’s Planet Earth series who spent months in temperatures that dipped to 70 degrees below zero to film the Emperor Penguins who huddle to incubate their chicks. When asked how they managed to endure these conditions, with only a 9 foot square structure to live in when they weren’t in the punishing arctic climate for hours waiting for the shot, they all reflected on the magic and glory of Nature and the privilege of being witness to it. And this new winter picture is such a nice, snowy addition to the 52 Mondays series! All seasons are amazing and wonderful in their own way, it turns out, and I’m grateful that I have the desire and ability to walk out into a cold day to get this photograph for you, my nice readers.
Enjoy this last week of 2010. This year will never be here again… make a nice memory to remember later, on some reflective winter’s day.
TRY THIS WEEK: Reflect. Make your own top ten list from 2010 and see if you can include all five of your senses.