Saturday, January 15, 2011
Sleeping for Memories
Well, well, well!
Science is about to explain me to my family.
Since childhood there have been countless family stories told and retold about my sleeping. Famous among them is the story of my mother standing on my head to hang curtains. Seriously. I was asleep, Mama wanted to see the results of her creativity and couldn't quite reach the curtain rod and therefore used what was handy for that last little step up. I share in the laughter of the telling but I have no memory of this event. I was asleep.
Another story my mother tells is of putting me to bed one evening a normal, healthy child. Hours later she came to check on me and found I was still sleeping soundly. She went on to get ready for bed but some bothersome uneasiness wouldn't leave her alone. She barefooted back through the house to check the doors were locked, the oven turned off and one more check on us kids. When she got to my room she turned on the lights knowing it would awaken children but I did not wake up. Not even when she tried to wake me. It was 10 days before I would awaken from a febrile coma. My mother always says it was God whispering in her ear that saved me. She said I had always been such a sound sleeper there was no observable difference.
( I've always been grateful for that whisper.)
Lots of family folklore about my sleeping.
There is also lots of family stories and some considerable amount of razzing about my memory.
I have always chatted about dreams and memories. For me it has always been like watching a movie. Full color, sound, mood, environment. Everything. When siblings and I are talking about a shared experience I always have a lot to add. We all share the same general memory but I often have more details. As we have matured, sometimes the others have said,
"That is Fishy's visual thing".
I do have strong visual memories/recall but I also have the ability to visualize what can be. So there is sometimes doubt if I have a vision based memory the others don't share. Did I mention razzing???
Science now knows, KNOWS!, how well we remember is directly linked to how well we sleep.
When we are awake our memories are stored in the hippocampus portion of the brain. Those memories must then be sorted, cataloged and then stored in the neo-cortex region. That process can only happen in sleep. A sleeping brain is a busy brain. It must replay experiences, like video clips, before they can be transformed from short term to long term memories. My brain is stellar at this activity.
Memory is a huge area of scientific and medical research. What is learned can solve the riddles of learning disorders, stress and trauma disorders, how to retrain brains after strokes or surgeries or physical traumas. Wonderful stuff. In VA hospitals they have documented thousands of cases of those with dreadful war experiences never having PTSD and also cases with those who have had less horrifying experiences who do suffer, really suffer, from PTSD. There is the possibility that sleep/memory storage is the answer to the riddle and the path to corrections. We can hope.
Most of us are familiar with what is termed short term or long term memory. Now they are discovering there are all sorts of memory types and they are attempting to understand how and where they are stored and cataloged. Some believe it is based on the sensory register of the experience. I understand this. If you go to a beautiful restaurant where the environment is great but the food isn't, different senses are recording the contrasts: bad taste, beautiful visions. But there are also episodic memories, emotional memories, flash bulb memories, procedural memories and spacial memories. All these memories are components of the video clips our sleeping brains must sort, catalog and file for rapid retrieval on demand. Fascinating. This explains how we as humans can have very different memories of the same experience. Was it stored as an emotional memory or as a visual memory?
This past Summer my Dad was traveling through our state. He came to the Pond for a visit before we set out for lunch. I gave him directions for a bit of a back way to our destination because I wanted him to see a particular house. I told him, "It's amazing Dad, architecturally it's a smaller version of Miss Bobbie's house". His response was, "I'm not sure I remember what that house looked like Fishy. You haven't been in that house since you were really young!"
But I had loved her house, her property, and her. So strong attachments. As we drove down the boulevard I pointed out the house to Dad who said, "Well I'll be damned!". This is a memory with visual, emotional, sensory and procedural components. But where is it stored? I think many of my memories are cataloged and stored visually. Most of my memory triggers start with an image. Not a feeling or a recalled smell or an interaction. I do not believe this is true of my siblings. I think their memories are thought triggered, so called light bulb memories.
It is easy to understand how this sleep-memory link can be a blessing or a curse. If you have a bad experience can you stay awake for days to ensure the memory won't haunt you later?
If you have a fabulous experience should you immediately take a nap for long term enjoyment?
Will this science change how we raise our children? How we educate? Train? Prepare?
I don't have the answers.
What I do know is I will have far more compassion for my siblings who have not been blessed with good sleep. They will miss a lot when we are in our rockers remembering when.