Spirit of Delight!… Spirit, I love thee—
Thou art love and life! By, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Watching a recent Nova episode on PBS called ‘Memory Hackers’, I found myself drawn into the connections between our ethereal visions of memory and the concrete realities of the mechanics of the human body and its brain. I’d been introduced to the fact that memory has a tangible structure inside the brain at a lecture at the NYPSI given by Eric Kandel. I followed that with one of his books, and initially fascinated by the mapping of something I’d previously thought of as impalpable, I promptly forgot it once everyday life intervened with other challenges and thoughts. There’s the nature of memory, for you!
Yet here in the Nova episode was the same issue taken so much further, with the main thrust of the show demonstrating how scientists are now separating feelings from memories with a wall built of a drug that may be a short-cut to ridding people of PTSD and phobias. This is a wild over-simplification of the show’s premise, as you’ll appreciate if you click that link above to learn more, yet it was most certainly the main point of the research described, and it set me to reflecting, with myself and others, as to how important feelings are to memories and vice versa. I wondered if a significant event remembered is in fact what psychiatrists call a ‘Screen Memory’, which is first presented as of psychological consequence, but displaced onto another, more everyday memory.
I then pushed on along that path to wonder if feelings are essential or at the very least, the essence of what forms our creativity. Can you have feelings about something connected to the past without memory? If you do, does that mean the memory has been repressed, or simply that it wasn’t the true meaning of the ‘thing’ after all? If Saint Exupéry was right that ‘we live not by things but the meanings of things’, as I believe he was, then it seems to follow that the feelings we’re left with are more important and essential than the memories themselves.
When I start thinking about the way we change memories to suit ourselves yet can’t seem to change the feelings that went with them, I realize I need examples of the distinctiveness of emotion separate from memory to appreciate the relationship. Forcing my thoughts to explore that, I bring up the vision of being taken to my grandparents’ hotel suite for a farewell sendoff before they left for Europe. They were in New York briefly between their winter home in Florida and summer home on Lake George. I hadn’t met them before, so it should have been momentous, especially as I never saw them as a couple again, but although I can describe much of what happened and even the room and some contents, none of it stands out; except for the odd juxtaposition of feelings I associate with it. There were some interesting peripheral emotions, but the predominant ones were of pride and privilege to have been included in the cortege meeting these illustrious people when I was only 3-years-old. The memory of the day itself should not have produced anything like that new-found confidence and contiguous desire to please, but clearly my need for inclusion was already forming at an early age, and the feelings associated with that day have lived with me irrespective of the trip to the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1948.
There is a poem by Percy Shelley, called: Song: Rarely, rarely, comest thou. It inspired the English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, not in its entirety he explained, but more just the few lines I’ve included at the top of this essay. The point being that the feeling of delight was more important to him than any specific thing that might elicit it. He tried to capture that essence of feeling in his symphony. If there was ever a case well made for feelings rather than things, that’s it. If scientists discover a way to ‘hack’ all the brain’s connections, I do hope they never practice it on me. Separating us from our bad memories and feelings must have a reciprocal, and frankly, I’ll take the bad ones as long as I can keep the beautiful ones, too. I’m forever grateful for those feelings of my spirit, no matter where they come from.