Dec 25, 2010

The Locked Door in Our Brains

I had an interesting dream few weeks ago. One of those very emotional dreams that when you wake up you don't remember the details of the event in the dream but you feel a strong emotion all day. It so happened that, that particular emotion I was feeling was associated with a short period of time in my past so as I felt the emotion throughout the day I could guess and eventually recall the details of the dream I had the night before. Not so out of the ordinary, we all have such dreams from time to time.

However, what's fascinating to me is that I can not recall or feel those emotions on command (consciously). I can easily recall events from memory but recalling the exact emotions I felt during those events has been a challenge. As I've analyzed this, it's become evident to me that events and feelings do not get stored in memory the same way or perhaps not even the same regions of the brain. When we remember an event in our past we can remember certain details and generally, if we were happy, sad, tired, bored or excited during that event. However, do we actually start feeling happy, sad, tired, bored or excited when we start recalling those events from memory, I don't think so, at least not exactly as we had when the actual event took place. But in my dream that night I replayed both the events and exact feelings as I had felt them during that time of my life. Dreaming, it seems like had unlocked a door or a vault to an array of associated emotions that otherwise is inaccessible consciously when I am awake. So perhaps this means that the way details such as smell, color, people, faces, places, temperature are stored in memory is different than how the brain stores past emotions and feelings in memory, and the only way to connect the two is through dreaming? I don't know for sure, perhaps but this very much resonates with the "locked door" chapter and notion in Malcolm Gladwell book Blink that I was rereading recently. Gladwell discusses a study done at Columbia University where students participate in speed dating and their interactions with one another are observed and compared to their criterion for a mate before they start. In doing so researchers discovered that often the students end up liking and wanting to date the person with very few or none of their pre-speed dating criterion. Why?

Gladwell explains, talking about one of the participants named Mary: "Mary has an idea about what she wants in a man, and the idea isn't wrong. It's just incomplete. The description that she starts with is her conscious ideal: what she believes she wants when she sits down and thinks about it. But what she cannot be as certain about are the criteria she uses to form her preferences in that first instant of meeting someone face-to-face. That information is behind the locked door. "

Now I know in Mary's case, she is not dreaming or recalling an event from the past but to judge her mate at first at least she relies on unconscious emotional signals and feelings that consciously she did not have access to until she met the person she liked (unconsciously). I, too was able to access these unconscious emotions from my past when I was transformed back into that period of time in my dream.

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