The Sleeping Butterfly Effect: The Mind — Memory, Depression and Joy
The Sleeping Butterfly Effect
The Sleeping Butterfly Effect is my personal growth and transformation series. The idea is that we are asleep to much that happens in our mind. As we become aware of it, and begin to discover our true potential and change, we’ll notice that with a single flap of our wings we are capable of changing not only ourselves but the world around us.
I started on this journey when I discovered I had some behaviour patterns that were limiting my success. I began to see them clearly for the first time in part due to my studies of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). I’m now a certified NLP Practitioner and use this clarity in my coaching services. I also used this research on the mind to write my first novella, Senseless.
With the recent raising of awareness about depression due to the death of much-loved comedian, Robin Williams, perhaps it’s time to share some of what I learned. Obviously, I’m not a doctor or a neuroscientist, but I can share what made sense and what helped me.
The Mind and Memory
I realised my mind was the key to all of it. As Michael Neill says in The Inside Out Revolution — it’s only thought.
The mind stores certain memories. Some now as distant shards of images, smells and sounds. Some so strong I still cringe in fear, but I no longer can visualise the actual event. Those strong memories loop and etch themselves in so deeply that patterns are formed. And we seek to repeat those patterns.
Memories are stored in different ways:
- There are the things you don’t bother to remember
- Then there are things you remembered but then forgot because they were trivial or unhelpful to your success
- Of course there are the things you remembered
- And the things you remembered but then forgot because they were too painful
- Finally, there are the things burnt so deeply into the physical memory that the body reacts but the conscious mind no longer remembers why.
The things you don’t bother to remember are easy to forget. Your unconscious mind happily filters out how your little toe feels pressed up against your shoe or that strand of hair touching your face. So you don’t even think to remember it.
The things you remembered or remembered but forgot are where it starts to get interesting. Memories are first stored in short-term memory. They’re stored in something called the hippocampus. That store of memories is the last two years of your life. These memories are fragile. They will either be written to long-term memory or thrown away.
Have you ever had a dream and thought, “That was weird”, but then realised that you recognised some random element of what happened during the day mixed with something that happened last month? That’s the mind processing its last two years of history. Every time it replays an event it writes it deeper into memory. Of course, consciously replaying an event on a daily basis encourages it to be played back each night and written deeper into memory.
So then, what about all those things that happened that had some significant effect on us, but we can’t remember what they were.
Well, three things can happen when we undergo trauma:
- We can remember
- We can forget
- Or we can remember unconsciously.
We forget because the stress hormones produced by our body can temporarily stop or damage the hippocampus. That prevents those last two years of short-term memories from being successfully written to long-term memory. Sometimes it’s just gone. Sometimes only fragments remain.
If it’s truly gone, there’s usually no way to recover the conscious memory, but if fragments are there we can try remembering by triggering the memory through the different senses – listening to the music of the time or to other times with similar memories, looking at photographs, walking through somewhere we once lived, smelling the scent of a room, or recreating the taste of a meal.
Be careful though – take someone skilled with memory access with you if you’re scared of what you might find. And remember memories are by their nature imperfect and ever-changing as we re-write them with every remembrance.
That leaves us with the memories we remember unconsciously. These are written usually in an instant. Like a phobia of spiders or snakes. We may not remember the trigger event, but we never forget to be afraid.
These unconscious memories are formed during a stressful event. They are written directly, immediately and permanently to another part of the brain called the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that deals with appease, flight or fight as well as phobias. With these memories, we physically experience the sensations we felt – panic, anxiety, conditional fear, but can’t necessarily link them to a specific memory. Some unconscious trigger goes off, and our amygdala floods our body with the physical response like an auto-replay. These responses are the unconscious mind reaching through to warn of danger for the things we can’t remember. That feeling in the gut that something is wrong. And it’s usually a negative emotion.
Emotions and Depression
Emotional responses are mostly generated unconsciously. Emotions happen to us, we do not make them happen. What we do with those emotions is another story. That’s thought.
Depression is probably used as a survival mechanism for animals to conserve energy or withdraw in danger. In today’s human society depression is often triggered by events that undermine self-belief; today’s equivalent of being beaten on one’s own ground by a larger, stronger animal.
Depression is a loop. It must loop to continue. Breaking the loop breaks the depression.
The first part of the loop is that amygdala. It feeds negative emotions to the conscious mind.
The conscious mind then pulls out the long-term memories that match that feeling. Long-term memories are the ones the mind has decided are important enough to get written permanently. These are often ones we have repeated in our head, tried to recreate, or been emotionally charged enough to stick there in the first place.
Then just to ensure the loop continues, another part of the brain fastens on to those memories and prevents attention from shifting to anything more uplifting.
The depressed brain turns inwards, trapped, replaying its negative past. It is not aware of what is going on around it. The body becomes more inactive, slowing into lethargy.
The Components of Joy
According to Rita Carter’s research in Mapping the Mind, happiness is a combination of several states of mind:
- The absence of negative emotion
- Physical pleasure
- And, crucially, meaning.
So how to break out of depression – that negative emotion loop? Interestingly, there are two ways – mental and physical.
Our right side of our brain (the creative side) tends to be more emotional and negative. Our left side of our brain tends to be more logical and positive. Shifting the mind to the left-brain and doing something non-emotional and mentally occupying – like learning a foreign language, organising one’s DVD collection, or generally keeping busy – inhibits the amygdala and its negative emotions.
Because some of the characteristics of depression tends to be internal focus and inactivity, we can enact physical change to break out as well.
One way is by moving from internal focus to becoming aware of what is happening outside of oneself.
A simple technique from NLP is as follows:
- Find somewhere safe and with activity – a coffee shop or the park.
- Focus on a point (a mark on the wall, a tree).
- While looking ahead at that point, become aware of the movement happening to the right and left of you. Keep looking ahead.
- What is happening both to the right and left of you right now? Is someone moving?
- Now while looking ahead and to the sides, be aware of what is happening above and below you (the ceiling or sky and the floor or grass). What does it look like? Are there clouds? Are people still moving to each side of you?
- Are you still also looking straight ahead while taking all this in?
This technique destroys the “tunnel vision” and that internal loop as you have to engage external awareness.
Finally, physical change itself can help.
- Look at yourself in a mirror. Are you standing up straight? Straighten up.
- Find something on YouTube that makes you laugh. Smile. The feedback to your mind is that you have something to be happy about.
- Go for a walk. Changing physical location breaks state.
- Exercise. It’s difficult to be lethargic in the gym.
So, now that you’ve broken out of that negative state, how do you change that to joy?
Physical pleasure is where some people fall into the trap of addiction or co-dependency to addicts. Addiction results in a neurochemical change to the brain, which results in more and more addictive behaviour to achieve the same high. Avoid this shortcut. It doesn’t bring joy. If you do find yourself here, please get into a 12-step programme. And for those who are co-dependent to addicts, you have your own journey – there are 12-step programmes for you as well.
What gives you real pleasure? Sunshine? Meeting up with a friend? Petting your cat? Your dog? Go do it. This sends a rush of dopamine to your brain. Do more fun things. Enjoy life.
And meaning. Well that’s the sense that everything in the world is right. That feeling of well-being and cohesiveness. The flow. Another part of the brain called the ventromedial cortex does that. And it’s probably why in 12-step programmes, Step 2 and Step 3 (about a handing over to a higher something than ourselves) are so critical…they help to give meaning.
Believe in yourself. In your place in the universe. Find something greater than yourself to believe in. Hold on. Breathe. And let go.