The Power of Forgetting


The tenets of psychology, namely those of Sigmund Freud, teach us that we must deal with every tragedy, and every moment of despair, if we ever hope to get past them.  If we ever hope to move beyond them we must be honest about them, confront them, and analyze them ad nauseum, until we achieve greater mental health.  Some of the times, that’s not true.  Some of the times, it’s better to forget.

ForgetAre you a bad person?  Most people don’t think that they are, and if they did they probably wouldn’t tell you.  But how does one become a bad person?  What’s the difference between a fully formed, moral adult and a bad one?  Some would say that a bad adult is created through a series of events that have happened to them, or the way in which they dealt with them, or remember them.  Some would add that it’s the decisions that we have made in life, based on the series of events that we have experienced.  Others would say that it’s a great stew of the conscious and subconscious decisions we make on what to remember, and what to forget, and that that forms the core of who we are?

This relatively new belief in the healing powers of the mind to forget seems to go against one hundred years of psychological teaching, particularly those involving the philosophies of Freud.  Freud taught us that the path to mental health involved remembering every excruciating detail of our lives, until we reached a point of exhaustion where those details could be properly analyzed and interpreted.  He then wanted us to focus on why we remembered these details, how they should be remembered, and when they should be remembered most often.  Anyone that has visited a counselor, of any stripe, has experienced this concentration.  Most of us have wanted the counselor to move on, but the counselor decided that that the particular event in question was crucial to our growth, and it may very well be the case, but we’ve decided to move beyond it to some degree.  We decided, whether consciously or subconsciously, to forget the event and its effect on our lives.  The psychological community is now correcting itself and realizing that there may have been an element of truth to our complaints.

The psychological community has, in fact, become so entrenched in this apparent evolution of thought, that when they now run across a patient that is not able to forget certain events, after extensive counseling and other treatments, they now believe there may be something fundamentally wrong with that patient’s brain.  It’s an almost complete reversal of everything Freud, and the 100 years of psychology that followed, theorized.

If you’ve ever been under the influence of a heavy drug, say morphine, as a result of an injury or surgery, chances are you’ve relived a horrific moment of your life in explicit detail.  You always remembered that horrific incident on a certain level, as it affected everything you did in its aftermath, but you didn’t remember it on that “enhanced” level, with that kind of detail, until your mind was brought to another state.  Those of us that are blessed, and cursed, with excellent memories found it a little troubling that we forgot anything involving that horrific incident.  If you’ve ever experienced such a moment, you’ve experienced this idea that the mind is keeping certain secrets from you, to protect you from the life you may have lived if you were cursed with living with these details at the forefront of your mind every single day.

Romantic populists provide us with powerful conceits: “I think about the Holocaust every day!”  While most of us think that’s a bunch of hooey, it does give the provocateur a degree of cache we’ll never know.  “How do you know I don’t?” they might ask defensively.  We don’t, of course, but we do know that doing so would make them incredibly miserable people to be around.  We could tell them that they’re probably doing a disservice to the memory of those survivors when they don’t move on and live the lives the Holocaust victims had unceremoniously, and horrifically, taken away from them.  We could say that relatively few of them would’ve wanted to see our lives so burdened by their demise.  We could say that at some point, they would’ve wanted us to just move on.  The truth, for most people, is that they don’t dwell on the negative as often as they purport.  The truth is that the brain works in its best interests, as all organs do, to remove those toxins that might hinder peak performance.

The mind is a powerful tool.  The mind can juggle a multitude of memories.  Some have guesstimated that we can quantify the number of memories any brain can hold at three trillion, others gauge their guesses in terabytes and petabytes, and others say that it’s not quantifiable.  Whatever the case is, most people agree that our resources for memory are limited.  The mind can remember the Pythagorean Theorem, Walter Payton’s career rushing total, Eisenhower’s farewell speech on the military industrial complex, your distant cousin’s birthday, or that wonderful time you spent with your family at the lake, but it can also forget.  It can purposefully forget.

This power to forget can, at times, be as powerful a tool to your furtherance as the power to remember.  To those of us that live relatively happy lives, it could be said that the mind provides the soul a crucial ingredient that it needs to move on, when it decides to forget.  To say that the mind is simply blocking out certain memories seems a bit simplistic when it comes to forgetting those moments of despair, where all hope is lost, and where a person believes that they can no longer go on.  It seems the mind is making crucial, and subconscious, decisions to simply filter out such information to provide the soul some relief from all the guilt and sorrow of the event.

“It is surely human to forget, even to want to forget.  The Ancients saw it as a divine gift. Indeed if memory helps us to survive, forgetting allows us to go on living. How could we go on with our daily lives, if we remained constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts surrounding us?  The Talmud tells us that without the ability to forget, man would soon cease to learn. Without the ability to forget, man would live in a permanent, paralyzing fear of death.  Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.”{1}

The mind also juggles inconsequential items.  Some of us remember all the lyrics of the Britney Spears songs from 1999, but most of us have forgotten them.  Most of us only remember the video, the skirt, and the ponytails.  Very few of us remember the role Archduke Ferdinand played in the outbreak of World War I, but when we had to remember it for the test, it was at the forefront of our minds.  It could be said that the mind only has so many resources –like any laptop, cell phone, or camera only has so much memory– and if we want to add new applications we must clear some extraneous information that we no longer use to provide room for it.  Most of us have forgotten more than we remember about the trivialities of life.  But, the psychological community is largely unconcerned with these occasional slips of the mind.  They’re far more concerned with the remembering and forgetting of crucial information of their patients.  Both, they feel, are mandatory for mental health and vital to mental hygiene.

Are you that annoying type of person that just keeps bringing a horrible memory up to your loved ones?  Have you ever heard the phrase: “Isn’t it time we moved on?” from them.  They say this with loads of sympathy and empathy, but they also say it with some degree of determination.  Those of us that have been hit with this question were almost as devastated by the question as we were the actual event.

“How can you move on?  How can you just forget something like this?” You ask.  “How can you not want to talk about it nonstop?  How can you not want to get to the core of this matter and how it affects every day of your life?” 

You want to deal with it, get to its inner core, and learn that all of those affected are just as affected as you are?  They aren’t.  They’re saddened by it.  They’re lives will never be the same as a result of it, but their mind is telling them to clear the resource pool for an eventual return to happiness, and you just keep bringing them back.  Repeated requests to remember are rejected, until one person gets angry.  They’re tired of you bringing it up at every get together.  They want to move on, but you won’t let them.  The mind has a lot of power invested in remembering, but it has as much power invested in assisting us to forget.

Are you that bad person we discussed earlier?  Are you generally mad?  Suspicious?  Distrustful?  Sad?  Are you someone that cannot let go of the fact that you weren’t raised in a happy, functional home?  Are you someone that feels that you were not afforded the luxuries that most of the people around you took for granted throughout their youth?  Are you someone that dumps a prospective lover before they can dump you?  Are you haunted by the fact that you didn’t spend enough time with a recently deceased loved one?  Or, are you a good person that is generally happy?  Do you consider the path to happiness trying to be better today than you were yesterday?  And is all that defines your demeanor based on your memory of a life well-lived, or could it be said that you’ve forgotten a lot of the events of your life that could be making you a miserable person to be around right now?

Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias


“Didn’t you hear the old, Native American woman say something evil lurks in that there lake?” one of the great-looking people on the shore screams. Dougie ignores them, apparently unaware of the golden rule of modern cinema: Always listen to Native Americans, especially if they’re old and speak in hallowed tones. “You’ve gone too far, Dougie!” the great-looking people on the shore continue to shriek. “Come back!”

“C’mon, you chickens!” Dougie says, backstroking leisurely. “It’s fun, and there’s nothing evil out here!”

The music that cues Dougie’s impending doom spills out of the Dolby surround sound. A subtle roar follows, and those of us in the audience tense up. We grip the armrests so tight that our forearms flex. We join the gorgeous people on the shore, mentally screaming out warnings to Dougie, telling him to get out of the water. We then join the collective hysteria that erupts when the water of the lake begins to swirl.

“Dougie, please!” we shout in unison.

“Aw, shut it!” Dougie says, waving off the warnings. 

The trouble is the character actor who plays Dougie is unattractive and chubby. Those of us who have watched thousands of movies know movies, and we know casting. We knew Dougie’s role in this movie would meet an unfortunate demise.

The monster roars to an impossible height. Dougie looks up at it, and as his fate becomes apparent, he screams. Is the monster evil, or is it just hungry? We don’t know, and we don’t care. It’s going to eat Dougie, the comedic foil in our movie. The monster takes its time, so we can see the full breadth of its horror. It gnashes its teeth a little. It swivels its head about. It looks menacingly at Dougie. Dougie continues to look up and his screaming continues until the monster lowers onto him and bites Dougie’s head off. The idea that this macabre scene took a full thirty seconds leaves those of us who have watched too many horror movies nonplussed.

“Why didn’t he just move?” monster movie aficionados have asked for decades. “Why did he stay in the water, screaming, for thirty seconds? Why didn’t he even try to swim away?” We can live with the fact that the monster would naturally move through the water much quicker than Dougie, since the monster is aquatic and Dougie is not. We can also live with the fact that Dougie probably didn’t have much of a chance the moment he jumped into the water. Still, we horror movie aficionados would love, just once, to see victims do a little more to prove that they, like all humans share an inherent survival instinct.

When I later learned that actors have to stay on their mark, I was a little less disgusted with the actors who played Dougie roles. I still want them to move, but I now know they must obey the director who commands them to stay in a designated spots for the decapitation scene. This cliché scene may strike horror in some, but I would venture to say that either the terrified are under the age of 30, or they haven’t watched a thousand horror movies yet. For those of us who have crossed both thresholds, we know it’s just plain irrational that a person wouldn’t move or do something to get away from a menacing monster. We certainly wouldn’t just stand in one spot, looking up, screaming, at the person, place, or thing looking to seal our fate.

Author David McRaney argues this point though. He claims that not only are Dougie’s reactions normal, but they are closer to the truth than anything monster movie aficionados might expect. In McRaney’s incredible book, You Are Not so Smart, he suggests that the one conflicting detail of this monster scene that might counter how we think we would react in a similar moment of unprecedented horror is Dougie’s screaming.[1]

Those of us who are not as knowledgeable about psychology believe there are two basic reactions to catastrophic, chaotic moments: action and non-action. We break it down to those who act and those who choke. Those who act may also be broken down into two categories: The selfish who fight to save themselves and the martyrs who act in a heroic fashion to save others. Either way, casual, non-psychology types insist there are but two reactions to such situations. Either the individual involved in the situation does something to save their lives or they choke.

McRaney argues that there is a third reaction, though casual, non-psychology types are more apt to view this course of action as little more than an extension of choking. Psychologists call it fear bradycardia. The difference between fear bradycardia and choking is that a victim of fear bradycardia experiences a heart deceleration, as opposed to the acceleration we might expect in such a traumatic situation. An acceleration of the heart could lead a potential victim to fumble about and select an incorrect reaction, but a deceleration might lead one to freeze up in a manner some call attentive immobility. Fear bradycardia is a reflex, an involuntary, automatic instinct that often occurs in moments of unprecedented chaos and horror, heaped upon the unprepared.

Put succinctly, fear bradycardia is the idea that in our movie not only will Dougie not scream or scramble out of the way, he will reflexively stop moving and simply hope for the best possible outcome. The normal reaction one might have to surviving a plane crash, for example, is that we need a moment to gather the most terrifying thing that ever happened to us. We might also need a moment to come down from the horror of it, and the euphoria we experience when we realize we’re one of the survivors. The concept psychologists are describing, when they talk about the term fear bradycardia, goes one step beyond that. It suggests that we will remain frozen beyond the normal moment necessary to deal with the situation. It suggests that if the plane is on fire, in our scenario, and other survivors are screaming that the plane is going to blow, we might not do enough to assure our survival, as we will remain frozen hoping that this moment simply passes. This fear bradycardia reaction involves an automatic, involuntary instinct that exists in all of us. Some refer to this state as tonic immobility, but no matter the name, it falls under the umbrella of another psychological term, normalcy bias.

McRaney details several incidents in which people experienced fear bradycardia: an F5 tornado in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, survivors of floods, and even the infamous 9/11 Trade Center terrorist incident.

According to some first responders, the one commonality in most similar tragedies is that victims wander about in a dreamlike state. These first responders say that their first responsibility is to shake survivors out of this state. For even if their world is falling down around them, most survivors shut down and go to a safe, more normal space in their minds, if no one is around to shake them out of it.

In the aftermath of the 9/11/01 terrorist action, most first responders spoke of the calm that evacuating survivors exhibited. They stated that most of the survivors obediently followed instructions, without any panic, allowing for a safe exit that ultimately saved many lives. The first responders we saw interviewed on the news stated that the heroic first responders provided a model for proper evacuation procedures.

Other first responders agreed with that sentiment, but they added that the unspoken sense of order among the survivors was so calm and quiet that it bordered on eerie. Very few survivors were screaming, they said, and though there wasn’t room to sprint, there is no record of anyone pushing, shoving, or doing anything out of the ordinary to get out of the burning, soon to be falling buildings. There is no record of survivors complaining about the slow, orderly exit, or attempting to find their own alternative exit, if there was one available. We might think these are normal, human reactions to such a horrific episode, but the limited records we’ve found suggest no such incidents occurred.  

McRaney cited some of the accounts first responders of 9/11/01 reports of some survivors taking a couple extra, crucial moments to complete the log-out procedures on their computers. Before following the instructions of first responders, some even gathered their coats. Others engaged in mundane conversations, with their coworkers on the way out of the office, in a manner we might deduce helped them achieve some level of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Those of us on the outside looking in might view this as lunacy. If I were in that situation, we might think, I’d be running, screaming, and I might be crying. I might even knock an old lady down in my departure, but I would do everything I could to get out. I don’t care what this author says I’m all about survival brutha.

Television shows and movies depict such drama on a regular basis, and we’ve all watched such drama and trauma play out on our screens, be it some horror flick with a monster and a Dougie or our favorite cable news program. We’ve all placed ourselves in the shoes of the characters involved in such stories, and we list how we would do things differently. We’ve all shouted these condemnations at our various screens when the Dougies just sit there as a monster nears them, and we all know how we would’ve reacted before the menacing monster bites our head off. The central question of McRaney’s thesis, however, is this: While we might think we know how we would act, unless we’ve experienced such a moment in our lives we can never really know.

“If you haven’t,” McRaney writes, “you can never know how prepared you will be, and you can never know how you’ll react. The ideas we have about how we will react may be lies we’ve told ourselves so often that we might end up not knowing the actual truth after it’s too late to rectify it.”

Shutting down computers, gathering coats, and having mundane conversations are automatic, involuntary responses that occur because of this dream-like, faux normal state we defer to when it becomes clear that no amount of rationalizing will ever render the horrific, unprecedented, chaotic moment normal. We shut down to block out the flood of external stimuli that might otherwise cause us further panic.

“The people in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 had a supreme need to feel safe and secure,” McRaney writes. “They had a desire to make everything around them go normal again in the face of something so horrific that their brains couldn’t deal with it in a functional manner.”

As stated previously, most casual, non-psychology types might characterize this as choking in the clutch, but McRaney states that it goes beyond this, because they do not freeze as a response to panic. “It’s a reflexive incredulity,” McRaney writes, –attributing the term to Amanda Ripley– “that causes you to freeze up in a reflexive manner. This reflexive incredulity causes you to wait for normalcy to return beyond the point where it’s reasonable to do so. It’s a tendency that those concerned with evacuation procedures –the travel industry, architects, first responders, and stadium personnel– are well aware of, and they document this in manuals and trade publications.”

Sociologists McRaney cites say, “You are more prone to dawdle if you fail to follow these steps and are not informed of the severity of the issue.” Failing to gain the necessary information leads to speculation and to the inevitable comparisons and contrasts of other more familiar incidents.

Men, in particular, seem to have an almost imbedded desire to rationalize fear away. Fear, by its very nature is irrational, and most men feel it incumbent upon them to keep fear a rationalization away. In the face of a tragedy that alarms most, the rational, no fear, man is prone to say, “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as a previous experience I once had?”

Their preferred culprit for unwarranted fear is the media and politicians. The media wants viewers, and politicians want voters, so they pound horrific details home to keep us afraid and focused on them and their efforts to investigate and rectify. All of this is true, but it’s also true that the terrorist incident on 9/11/01 was one of the most horrific to ever happen in our country.

I add politics to this discussion to illustrate the mindset of those who rationalize horror away. They do so to lighten the load such an incident might have on their minds if they don’t find a way to deal with it. The problem arises when they face the type of horror they’ve rationalized away for most of our lives. At that point, they fall back on what they know, hoping to normalize the incident in such a way that they can deal with it in terms with which they are more familiar, until it becomes apparent that the incident is far worse than anything their rational mind could imagine.

To those who suggest, “There are “politics at play here”, and we should all start viewing the hype of politicians and media players as nothing more than hype.” I say this is a rationalization in and of itself. Most of us recognize that some media outlets and politicians make their bones on promoting fear, but at times, a bit of fear –an emotion capable of igniting awareness– might save our life.

For these reasons and others, it is crucial for a city facing an ensuing crisis to allow the local media to inundate us with reports of that impending storm, because the media needs to help us redefine our norm. It is also a reason for those of us who make fun of our friends for paying attention to the flight attendant’s pre-flight instructions, to drop our macho façades and listen. We may also want to drop the pretense that as frequent flyers we are prepared for anything. We must redefine our sense of normalcy in preparation for the many things that could go wrong in the air or upon our return to ground.

In spite of McRaney’s findings, I still find it hard to believe that the movie scenes that depict the near-catatonic reactions Dougie displayed as the monster neared him are closer to the truth than I am about how most people will react. I live with the belief that a survivor’s instinct will kick in for anyone facing impending doom. As those dumb enough to corner a badger into a corner know, most beings will do whatever it takes to survive, and I believe that the human being, regardless how chubby or unattractive they are, have that same instinct. The difference might be that the badger hones those skills more frequently, but we’ve all experienced mini-disasters and personal traumas in our lives, and most people have a decent batting average when it comes to reacting to them. Will that be enough to avoid experiencing fear bradycardia, tonic immobility, reflexive incredulity, or any of the normal bias tendencies we have in the wake of a horrific incident? We don’t know, and we won’t know until the decisive moment reveals if we are so ill prepared that we fall prey to automatic and involuntary instincts that result from lying to ourselves for so long that we will end up rationalizing ourselves to death.

[1]McRaney, David. November, 2011. You Are Not So Smart. New York, New York. Penguin Group (USA) Inc.