For my father’s 75th birthday, I accompanied him to Vallejo to my three sisters in a weekend of celebration. On Saturday night we played poker. Playing cards with our Nana and Poppop (my mother’s parents) is one of our best memories. My husband and I still play their favorite game – pinochle – and deal them in!
Dad’s never been much of a card player. So we were surprised that he was so engaged in the game, engaged with us, truly attending to us. He is usually on the edge of life… not really there… but Saturday night we had so much fun.
The next morning, my sister (also a nurse practitioner) commented on how much sharper Dad got through the game. I told her how cards are really good for the geriatric brain but it was more so… Dad was engaged because he was experiencing joy… and in spite of the fact that he cannot remember teaching us croquet when we were kids, that card game, he will remember… Why… because of feeling Joy!
Emotions are the key to memory. Our memories are stored via emotional pathways. Fear will bring up a repressed memory quicker than all the talk therapy in the world. The memory comes in bits and pieces, hard to make sense of the trauma that haunts you. Why? Because Fear is accompanied by the stress hormones of fight or flight that have a catabolic, destructive, effect on the body — erasing details as logic makes way for survival instinct to leave buried in the recesses of our brains mostly the scary parts.
Yet Joy escorts the most lasting memories to the surface of our recollection. Joy induces the neurochemistry of learning which is stored in relationship with specific details that highlight the emotion — like smell. The aroma of baking cookies will bring you right back to your grandmother’s kitchen, her energy, her love, right down to the color of the formica countertop perhaps…
Of course odor can trigger a fear-based memory as well — but the details that logic usually categorizes for later recall are blurred by the adrenaline rush to escape.
Two years in a row, my husband and I took care of his aging grandmother. We incorporated her into our lives… which included cooking together, playing cards, sharing stories, and exploring our garden. Gran loved spending time with us. And on her death bed, after that final stroke erased her mind even when she could not even remember her own daughters—she always knew us. Her face lit up with a smile as she lovingly whispered our names. Joy imprinted us into her memory protected from death.
Love and Light,
Deborah Maragopoulos MN FNP
Intuitive Integrative Health