A few years ago, I was briefly in another graduate program, and took a course in cognitive development. As a result, I no longer believe in free will.
Not that we don’t make decisions, and have choices. Not that we don’t have the ability to learn and change and adapt. But the more I learned about the brain, the more I learned how much of a slave we are to our past experiences. Once something has been imprinted on our brain, it influences us to degrees we’re not even consciously aware of.
As I get older, I think that’s what bothers me the most about growing up in an abusive household – the fact that I was raised to be fearful, raised to be in a constant state of anxiety, raised to be a scapegoat, raised being told I wasn’t allowed to have emotions or reactions or a voice. I’ve been able to become more self-aware, and process my experiences, and overcome a lot of the negative emotions, and learn not only better coping mechanisms, but also acquire a lot of the skills that I should have been taught as a child.
But what I can’t do – what none of us can do – is erase those experiences from our brains. Not consciously, not unconsciously, not at a cellular level. Those are the experiences that shape how we react, how we make decisions. As I was studying the brain, I began to wonder if all we really do, cognitively, is react to information we already have. We think we’re making choices, but really, we’re just responding to not just a situation, but the summation of all of our experiences and situations.
Which means we never actually forget things. Even if we consciously forget, our brains don’t completely lose that information.
That’s where my anger resurges – not that I had to suffer through years of abuse, but the idea that something was done to me that impacted me in ways that I can’t undo. The concept of “healing” simply means rewriting as much of your cognitive wiring (so to speak) as you can, knowing that it can never be entirely undone.
That’s one of the reasons why I was fascinated by the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – the idea of erasing something entirely is enticing. Yet also dangerous, because as much as I wish I could undo what was done, if it suddenly wasn’t there anymore, who would I be? Would I get stuck in a loop of sorts, like Joel and Clementine, suddenly longing for and being once again drawn to the very thing I’d forgotten?
Because even within that movie, all they succeeded in doing was erasing the conscious memories. The point was that Joel and Clementine didn’t completely forget one another – they were still drawn to the same places, and when they met again, still drawn to each other.
So if I could erase all the memories of the abuse, I’d be reacting to and driven by things that I didn’t understand.
But there are moments when the concept of selective forgetfulness is seductive.