“Nothing is over!”

by Fred

Millions of people my age have heard Johnny Rambo bellowing those words at his commanding officer who tried to tell him the Viet Nam war was over. “Nothing is over! You just don’t turn it off!” We all knew Johnny was talking about memories– his friend getting his legs blown off while getting his shoes shined and who knows what else combat veterans carry around inside. But Johnny was referring to a problem we all have if we’ve ever experienced anything. You don’t forget it, at least not by wishing to.

I’ve talked with hundreds of people who experience intense reactions to a smell, a sound, a color, even a word or phrase. Many of us have had well-meaning friends who tell us to “just let go of the past” and “you’ve got to move on.” Makes you want to go up and knock the shit out of them. But before you knock the shit out of them. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

The reason that we and Johnny Rambo can’t turn off memories is the same reason that we don’t forget the Pythagorean theorem or the color of our lover’s eyes. The reason is deeply rooted in a neurological function called Long-Term Potentiation or LTP for short. This fancy term refers to a few different ways that the neurons and synapses in our brains change as we have experiences or learn facts. A synapse is sort of like a spark plug in your brain that helps the nerve cells connect to the rest of the nervous system. Just like the spark plugs in your car, your brain needs them to function. But unlike spark plugs, your synapses become better at firing when they are stimulated repeatedly. In other words, long-term stimulation gives them more potential for firing. Hence the concept, Long-Term Potentiation.

When I say change, I mean the synapse changes physically in function and even shape. For example, a synapse can deploy more receptors to absorb more of the message that is fired across the synaptic cleft. The nerve cells can even learn to send more neurotransmitters across the cleft. And most amazingly, the fibers called dendrites that connect synapses and nerve cells can actually increase their capacity to transmit the information better. These physical changes to the neural pathway have all been observed with powerful microscopes. And these physical changes remain after the stimulation ceases for long periods.

This is great for people who spend years in Calculus I, II, III, and IV. You wouldn’t want to spend all that time in class just to forget it over the summer. Of course, we can forget things, but the general tendency of Long-Term Potentiation is that the potentiation of the neural pathways remains. And you certainly can’t put your Calc IV class behind you just by wishing to.

Most of us can’t forget the vomit scene in The Exorcist, either. Much as we may wish to. And our beloved friends who tell us to just put the past behind us are really just saying they want us to shut up. It’s okay. Take it for what it is. Leave those people behind. Not the memories.

But don’t blame yourself if you can’t forget your ex-husband drawing back his fist and plowing you in the eye. It’s not your fault if the sound of Christmas carols fill you with anxiety. There is simply too much stimulation around those neural pathways to turn off the things you learned under certain conditions.

And, of course, there is good news despite the fact that you can’t turn off the past. I will deliver the good news in the next update. For now, let’s just forgive those who have tried to tell us that the past is over. It’s never over. It’s never closed. You don’t forget the past. You learn to live with it. And you learn to live without some things, too.

(to be continued . . .)

Read “Nothing is over!” Part 2, here.

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