Led by Rachel Carroll Rivas
I generally feel pretty lucky. I have long thought that the life I’ve had has been pretty wonderful, full of family and friends and plenty of good fortune. My parents were kind and fun when I was a child and continue to be good company, loving and supportive people that I want to spend my time with. And while we were not wealthy, we didn’t go without while growing up. There aren’t professional athletes or rocket scientists in my family, but there are plenty of ribbons, awards and success. We live in a beautiful and safe place, I have a wonderful partner, sweet kiddos and fulfilling job.
You get the picture, life was and is good. I often wondered if my sense of a good life was perception or reality. There are obviously those in my periphery that can’t seem to catch a break and experience heartache after heartache and plain old bad luck. But, the reality is that it’s both about me having handled my challenges well, but also that my troubles have been pretty small. Then this spring, as many of you know, I found myself in one of those crying in the shower, tight chested, stomach churning situations. At 35 weeks into my pregnancy we found out that our soon to be second child had a major heart defect and we would have to go to Seattle for the birth and baby would have to have open heart surgery within days of delivery. Our community, including Big Sky UU, rallied to our side, and the heavy burden felt greatly lightened as it was spread out amongst so many.
We were supported in so many ways by so many people, organizations and social services. What a gift. One of the many things people offered was their kind words. And, that is how I got to the topic today. Please know that I am personally thankful for all words offered in kindness and with good intentions. I heard one phrase multiple times and it got me thinking. As I mentioned, we knew going into delivery that it was very likely the baby would need immediate attention and major surgery within days, so people offered comfort by saying “don’t worry at least he won’t remember.” Then four days overdue and three and a half weeks into the waiting game in Seattle, our baby boy Asa Stone joined us on June 19th after a quick two hour labor. Indeed he was blue and needed medical attention right away and open heart surgery at 6 days old. Thankfully he is doing very well now and is an incredibly happy little person.
With preparations for going to Seattle, and birth, and figuring out the medical terms and insurance, and having an toddler, and a job and then now having two kids, and work and two boards and well life— I’ve kept my mind pretty occupied and myself very busy. But, there are a variety of moral and spiritual topics that I have thought through relating to the whole experience so far. From those early days, big and pregnant and crying in the shower, I couldn’t believe that those words “Don’t worry at least he won’t remember” were correct. How could it be that something so dramatic and so life altering- literally- would not stick with him?
So, I wrote up a new birth plan for labor and delivery and a plan of care for baby. I provided these plans to the medical staff and as a family we prepared to make the experience the most loving and successful that we could. This was what I had some control over and in a very medicalized abnormal situation I wanted to maintain some sense of normalcy, familiarity and comfort. But, I also thought that Asa would remember the experience and I wanted it to be positive and loving and give him all the support to get through the tough stuff. I shared with others that I wasn’t sure it was true that Asa wouldn’t remember this early experience, just maybe not in the ‘same’ way as other memories. I didn’t have much of anything to base the idea that he would remember on, it just seemed right. So I’ve done a little research since then.
I don’t remember being born, but evidently some people do. I guess sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and surrealist artist Salvador Dali wrote about their memories of being born. Now those are some pretty wild characters and their experience isn’t typical. More commonly, adults have hazy fragmented memories of early childhood and infancy- so few memories that it’s termed “infantile amnesia.”
There are two theories of why we generally remember so little of infancy. One is that the memory loss is due to a storage difficulty, that early experiences are not properly transformed into long-term memories. The other is that the memory loss is a retrieval problem in that the memories exist, but we can’t recollect them. While some parts of the brain remain undeveloped very early on, the hippocampus, which is critical to memory formation, is nearly mature at birth. And while there is strong evidence that eye sight and language are greatly linked to the creation of memory because memory is a multi-sensory experience, there are some well know and repeated experiments that prove language isn’t necessary for memory formation, like those that show pre-verbal babies have developed memory functions. So it seems that storage is not the issue and that maybe it is retrieval. That means that we either lack the ability to tap into those memories or the lack the skill.
Well tested and repeated experiments indicate that babies have long term memories. Babies remembered months later how to use a mobile strung above their cribs that when kicked activated the mobile’s motor, but if given a mobile that looked different but worked the same they can’t remember. The theory is that perception matters. For example, to a 6 month old, everything in the world probably seems huge, so memories of that time are probably colored by towering furniture and lots of talk that could not yet be understood. Accessing these memories might be difficult in the adult world, where tables are no longer three times as big as us. As we age, our view of the world changes so much that the many of cues that we associated with our earliest memories are no longer present, so we lose our connection to infant memories.
Given all of these research about memory storage and retrieval, I wonder if, given the right multi-sensory cues that mimic early experiences, can we remember more of our early experiences?
The other scientific piece to the puzzle of infantile amnesia is that there are two types of memory systems: conscious or declarative memory (like remembering your childhood best friend), and unconscious or nondeclarative memories of skills and habits (like riding a bike). The neat thing is that the unconscious memory system appears available from birth, while conscious memory develops later. Being that they are so connected and part of the multi-sensory natural of memory, I believe that with enough cues or in the right person unconscious memory may prompt conscious memory.
In a variation of the mobile motor kick experiment, babies can recall months later how to kick the mobile to make the motor work even if they watched the toy being used and didn’t actually do it themselves. The experiment just shows us that conscience memory does exist in babies even without the unconscious, nondeclarative, ‘muscle’ memory stuff.
Even more exciting and something that really relates to Asa’s experience is that in recent years there has been increased awareness about the role of emotion in the accentuation of memory. Physically, brain structures like the amygdala that is present from birth are specialized for emotional learning. And researchers have even found that high levels of stress may actually benefit recall. The links between emotion, stress, and memory have led scientists to wonder whether there might be less infantile amnesia associated with traumatic childhood events. Essentially, the idea is that babies with high stress situations may be more able to recall and remember the experience. In one Cornell study of adult recall about four specific, life-altering events that occurred between 1 and 5 years old, the more stressful events like sibling birth and hospitalization seemed especially memorable, while moving homes and an extended family member’s death seemed to emerge from the haze a bit later. Scientifically, the relation between emotion and early memory is perhaps the least understood aspect of infantile amnesia, but yet it was an idea that I felt like I knew intrinsically- it seemed somehow obvious that Asa’s early days were so dramatic and stressful that he would remember them. But, I wanted to make his experience less stressful, and yet it wasn’t in hopes that he would just forget, but more in the hope that by creating an amazingly loving, positive, supportive and overly emotionally loving experience he would have “good” memories of his ordeal.
At the same time I was reading up on the idea of infant and early childhood memory, some Helenans have been having a conversation about ‘adverse childhood experience’ ACE’s. I’m not personally involved in this work and I didn’t attend a recent talk by a specialist in the field, but what I have learned is that child development specialists, educators, and other health experts believe that repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can change the body, brain, nervous system and ultimately an entire life. These experiences are rooted in trauma. We often think of trauma as associated with PTSD and we mostly understand PTSD as something resulting from war, but complex PTSD is essentially a result of early and prolonged trauma. Now isolated infant trauma like Asa’s isn’t really the prolonged abusive adverse childhood experience that is being talked about in our community right now, but the idea is the same, there are impactful long term body, brain, and emotional memories of these early experiences.
So how early can these memories occur? One incredibly cool indication of early, and I mean early , memory is that babies that are read certain books or whom had specific songs played to them in utero show a preference for those books and songs in infancy. This preference includes not only observed happy emotional responses, but also EEG recorded increases electrode brain activity. The more the books and song are repeated the more preference the babies show. “They recognize the memory, and their brains react to it,” says Eino Partanen, a University of Helsinki psychologist. If there are memories from in utero then how could there not be memories from early infancy and childhood? One of the things that made me particularly sad about preparing for Asa’s early days was that it required I give birth at one hospital and he be transferred to another hospital down the road. That meant that I couldn’t be with him until I was discharged and ready to leave and no longer under any care. And this meant we had to be apart for the first few hours of Asa’s life. That situation is a failure of modern ‘integrated progressive medicine,’ but that is a story for another day. What was sad for me is that I knew that early memories are real, that the welcome into the world is important, and it was going to be a stressful situation for his body and mind, so I wanted to be there to sooth him. I ended up making a recording of me talking to him, reading stories, telling him about our family and home and about the world. It also included music and recordings of Nava and Diego. I took solace in the idea that even when we were apart and he was in the middle of the sounds of the hospital machine beeps, he was creating some positive memories from these audio recordings, and hopefully minimizing the trauma by associating the high stress situation with loving emotions. Similarly, I brought my own bedding, diapers, and body care for him in hopes that all those smells and textures and senses would be familure then or that later he would make memories from them too. I realize now that I was tapping into multi-sensory emotionally memory and trauma mitigation without studying the subject. And, maybe giving him tools to mentally and emotionally handle high stress situations in the future.
And while I thought I was doing this all for Asa to make his early life experience the best it could be, I also realize that it was for me and the rest of my family too. Connection and prepping for reconnection includes memory and to some extent all of us manufacture or create memory. We often don’t do so intentionally, but in this case I did and I’m glad.
One of the other phrases I hear a lot right now when recalling Asa’s experience was something to the effect of, ‘that must have been so stressful and awful.” So in some ways it was, but in other ways it was really ok because our burden was spread out amongst so many people that were supporting us in our community. We also did a lot of preparation. Boom my experiences matter to my babies. This fall I’ve read a few interesting news articles about ‘generational’ memory. That’s right memories can be passed down. “Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” is a form of memory that is passed between generations. This includes simple things like the aversion to certain foods or smells and it’s believed that it can be even more complex. In tests scientists have learned that that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences in their DNA.
OK, so we now know that we can have early childhood and infant memories if we get the right cues, tap into the right combination of senses and recreate that perspective. We can even store and recall certain memories created in utero. And there is now evidence that our DNA holds transgenerational memories. Our memories are in our cells our basic building blocks. We also know that we are more likely to recall these memories if they are traumatic. Clearly we are not just a blank state but pieces of our family and our community before us are part of the core of our being. So that brings me to the idea of having memories from before birth or that seem outside of current reality. Those that believe in reincarnation believe that we unconsciously, but sometimes consciously carry memories from past lives into this life. It’s an interesting concept that could be a topic of it’s own.
Deepak Chopra, is an Indian American author, endocrinologist, speaker and new aged guru who writes about holist health and spirituality. Chopra combines transcendental meditation and Hindu spirituality. He believes in the power of consciousness over matter- or that in many ways we can create our reality. Chopra believes in the concept of ‘Soul memory.’ He says that “Memory is our ability to recall stored knowledge and experience. As such, memory is a function of consciousness and is not restricted to the cells of the physical body. In the physical body we could say memory is stored in the physical cells of the individual. However, no one has really come up with a comprehensive explanation for how that would work. At the deepest level of consciousness memory is self-knowledge. Here you remember your true divine status in eternal bliss consciousness. In this experience, memory of the self is the same thing as active cognition of the self.” While he could be talking about memories of past lives or reincarnation, I don’t think he is. I think he is saying that science has explained a lot about how our memories work, but there is still this sense that we all have at times of familiarity with a person, place or just a feeling that is more spiritual and soulful. It is the memory of being loved before we were born. And while really knowing ourselves and our potential is a continual proses, perhaps there is a very basic memory of knowing oneself that we have forgot in our infantile amnesia. Remembering in and of itself does us little good or bad. It’s about what our memories mean and how we use them. Forrest Church of All Soul’s UU in New York wrote:
“Think about the way you arrange your own memories, distill them, rework them, perfect them even—and not always by making them more faithful to the facts. Who we are today is in large measure determined by what we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it. We endow our past with significance by selectively keeping certain memories and stories alive, refreshing them, commemorating them, passing them down to our children. Our failures and disappointments as well. We condense them into lessons, learning more from them over time than they originally had to teach. Meaning comes from fashioning and refashioning our memories into a coherent pattern. Not all coherent patterns are equally conducive to our happiness, of course. We can choose to keep alive only memories that darken the present with their shadows. The most healthy among us—by which I mean most whole, most fully reconciled with ourselves, with others, and with the ground of our being—neither repress bad memories or dismiss good ones, but rather organize our past in ways that prove most conducive to balance, reconciliation, and hope.”
My instincts, spiritual leaders like Chopra, and even science would say that it is possible and even likely that Asa remembers, on some level, his first days. We choose to make sure his memories were full of love irrespective of the situation. I truly hope that for him it is a memory full of meaning of the importance of community and family, and indicative of the power of love to survive and thrive.