On Wednesday, June 6, I attended one of the popular after-hours series at the American Museum of Natural History in the SciCafe, 4th floor, Wallach Orientation Center. The guest speaker was Daniela Schiller, Ph.D, an assistant professor for psychiatry and neuroscience at the Schiller Laboratories of Affective Neuroscience, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. (See: http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/people/daniela_schiller.htm). Her topic was entitled “Forgetting Fear.”
Dr. Schiller spends her time studying memory and fear. With the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and behavioral techniques Dr. Schiller tries to understand how the brain represents emotional memories. On Wednesday she was discussing the part of her work that focuses on the manipulation of fear memory during the reconsolidation period. (See: Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms, www.nature.com/nature).
You can imagine how excited I was as I stood and listened intently to what Dr. Schiller had to say. I knew somehow that the information I learned would tie in with our unrealistic fear challenges. I also hoped that it would help in our quest to Kick Fear Now. I was not to be disappointed.
Fear memories are very powerful forces that, if we allow it, will manipulate us into positions of stagnation. Like puppets, we’re dangled back and forth by the strings of fear from the past and the guilt that comes from unforgiveness. Many of us find it hard to let go of past hurts and failures. We embrace animosity and resentment like they were valuable trophies.
We hold on to memories of the worst kind, storing them up only to bring them out when we find ourselves facing change and need an excuse to stop us from moving out of our comfort zone. We can always recollect the time that someone hurt us or something bad happened to us. We are able to recount in intricate detail what, when, how, by whom, and even the exact time the bad thing happened. It’s as clear and fresh as if it happened yesterday. Or so we think.
Dr. Schiller explained that when a memory is formed it is consolidated and then stored away in our memory. Days, months, and even years could go by and the experience would be just that, a past memory. Then suddenly something triggers this memory. It could be a loud noise, a familiar face in the crowd, or even a song we hear. Then we quickly retrieve that past memory to assess the situation. Fortunately, as Dr. Schiller pointed out, each time the memory is retrieved it becomes unstable. It is during this period, when the memory is being put back into storage, that you have a window of opportunity to introduce new information to it.
Armed and excited, I walked away that Wednesday with lots of valuable information. More than anything, three things really impacted me and I want to share them here. First, Dr. Schiller told us we must target what triggers ours fear. Second, we must expose it consciously and third, the moment we are vulnerable, we must experience our fear memory in a better way. Yes, we can modify our memory. Granted, the process will not happen overnight. Nevertheless, unlike the fear-filled subjects in the laboratories, who are injected with drugs or stimulated in some other fashion, all you have to do is update your fear memory with new, non-fearful information.
If you want to take control over those unrealistic fears then you have to change the shape of those fears, even if it means bringing up those memories of past failures and hurts one last time. Louis Binstock, The Road to Successful Living, says “Memories of the past can infuse us with courage and confidence and creative power, or they can bind us in a dark shroud of dejection and defeat”. Many times the courage to succeed has been hidden by those old memories, but that’s all they are: memories. They’re things of the past, gone and, if Dr. Schiller has her way, soon to be completely forgotten.
Binstock, Louis. The Road to Successful Living. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1958