The tension in the courtroom thickens as silence hangs in the air; it’s the prosecuting attorney’s turn to cross examine the witness. He abruptly shoots up from his chair but walks slowly over towards the witness stand, heels echoing with every step breaking the silence but not the tension. The woman on the stand swallows loudly though perceptible only to her own ears. Why should she be so nervous? She didn’t do anything wrong, she’s not on trial here. These thoughts race through her mind as the intimidating lawyer lightly stomps to a stop directly in front of her and brings her attention out from inside herself and into his own eyes. Silence persists; heart beating faster. The predator watches his prey and pounces, “Ms. Vasquez, would you tell me about the night you saw the defendant fleeing from the scene of the crime?” The defendants lawyer yells out, “Objection your Honor, leading the witness.” The prosecuting attorney jumps in before the Judge can make a decision, “I’ll rephrase my question your Honor.” Smiling to himself, he knows the damage has already been done. “Can you tell me about the night in question you saw the defendant leaving the victim’s apartment?”
I used to love courtroom dramas when I was younger. I had probably seen ‘The Client’ and ‘A Time to Kill’ more times than ‘Willow’, and don’t get me started on that movie. I had heard this statement, ‘leading the witness’ and it was always just something one lawyer said to get the other lawyer to object. I had no idea what they meant by that for most of my movie watching life. I then read a book by Neurologist Dr. Richard Restak in which he talks about memories and other cognitive functions and he used this as an example of one aspect in memory creation. If you read my post titled “The title of this post is….uh…….I don’t remember” you might recall that when we activate a memory proteins are released in the same manner as when that memory was created. It works like this because we don’t have a hard-drive in our heads like a computer, we have biological cells all squished together in a tangled clump of matter squirting chemicals (jeez that sounded kind of graphic). Every time we access a memory we have to reconsolidate the cells involved and basically create that memory again. When the prosecuting attorney asked the witness to describe the night the defendant was seen fleeing the scene of the crime, this information was present while she reactivated (reconsolidated) the memory. New proteins present and now all of a sudden the memory has been changed. When she had originally just remembered seeing the defendant walking out of the apartment looking rather calm and normal has now turned into him looking suspicious and in a hurry as he left. The functional way memories work is what in turn makes that memory stronger, or better yet, makes the retrieval and activation of those cells easier. On the flip side, it makes our memories extremely vulnerable and susceptible to influence.
What does this mean? Does it mean the next time you hear ‘objection your honor, leading the witness’, that you will sit up, gasp and say “I’ve been brainwashed!”? Probably not, although I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be flattered if you did. If you have gathered anything from these posts of mine it is that we should not allow our emotions to take us out of the captain’s chair. This is especially true when you talk about memories that dredge up old hurtful feelings. I would like to use as an example a very close friend of mine who had a single memory cause so much pain and influenced decisions in their life for years after.
My friend was sitting in an airport about to leave to his grandma’s house in another state. He was elementary school age and upset. His mother was sending him away and he didn’t understand why. Why didn’t his mom want him anymore? Pleading with her not to make him leave, begging her to let him stay. “Listen, don’t cry ok?” the Mom said trying to calm the kid. Embarrassed that passing travelers were starting to look in their direction. “It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just that I love your stepdad more. He gives me what you never could and we’re happy being just the two of us. Your grandma loves you so don’t cry. You’ll like it there.” She gives him a weak hug and passed my friend off to the flight attendant who escorts him down the ramp and helps him find his seat to the rest of his life.
This memory must have played millions and millions of times in my friends mind. Each time it was retrieved it brought sadness, emptiness and pain, and at the same time attaching those feelings more strongly to the memory. Each time the mom was recalled as being cold as stone and void of emotions for her child, the memory strengthened that image of her making it even more painful to remember. In another article I am writing, or posted (I don’t know yet because at this moment I am working on the two at the same time) I mentioned that I do not have the driving need to show my future children the love that I never felt. It would be all too easy for my friend to make an oath to never let another child feel the sadness that they had felt themself. The powerful and probably inaccurate memory has been a driving force in this life.
Am I saying that our memories are all lies and that we shouldn’t trust them? Am I telling you to ignore those echoed voices of the past and that they are misleading you? No, not really. I don’t know how accurate your specific memories are but if you think about it neither do you. The knowledge of the way your memory system works should be the signal for you to pull in the reins of the emotional horse you are riding. You should not let your memory be the major deciding factor in any decision you make. Remember those days in grade school when you were just starting to like girls, or like boys if you are a girl? One person in particular you had a crush on and all of a sudden something super embarrassing happened right in front of them. Maybe you farted in class. Maybe you answered an obvious question wrong and they all laughed at you. You look at your crush and you see them laughing with the rest. That image sets into your mind like quick drying cement. Every time you think about making a move from that point on all you can remember is that face. You strengthen the thought of “they will never go out with me, she thinks I’m a fool” and add it to that mentally constructed face and it erodes away your confidence at every retrieval. But aren’t accidental farts funny? Isn’t it funny when someone gets caught not paying attention in class and called out on it by the teacher? These may not have anything to do with the feeling your crush had for you but you will never know because you let a reconstructed and false version of the past steer you away from even trying. What sense does that make? Would that make you feel worse than if she said no?
To really be able to use this knowledge we have to be able to acknowledge when it starts to steer your decisions. We have to be aware of the true nature of our feelings and know when to disregard the fake ones. This, much like everything I learn about and share here with whoever reads it, takes practice to be good at. The act of meditating and being present and aware in our down time is practice for us to more easily slow down when things are heating up in the moment. When we start to get overwhelmed and misdirected by our memories we can more easily pull back and think about what is really going on. This helps us do things better and make better decisions. Let me leave you with one last example of what I mean.
The Christmas before last, my fiancé and I took a couple weeks to spend the holidays with her parents in Kansas which is about 1800 miles away from our home. We had to leave my dog Winslow in a kennel for the whole trip. When we got back and brought him home he started showing symptoms of severe stress. His bowels were bloody and pure liquid and it went on like this about every half hour, all day and night, for days after we got home. It was a real fear for us that he would dehydrate and die so we had to constantly have him eat soft food with Gatorade to keep his nutrient levels up. Those days were rough and now every time I think about putting him in the kennel it makes me feel so horrible and brings up all those emotions again.
A couple weeks ago my fiancé and I were talking about our wedding night plans and what to do with our dogs. With all the people flying in we were looking to have maybe 6 or 7 dogs at the house. Too much to deal with on a wedding night of course so as we were discussing what to do with all of them the kennel came up as an idea for Winslow. All the other dogs would have another place to stay the night. We ended up getting into a little bickering session and she walked away with an “it’s so hard to talk to you when you get irritated all the time.” I realized that I was getting irritated because I had aroused emotions within myself that were associated with the memory of poor little Winslow left locked in a cage pooping himself to death (this was my mind’s exaggeration of course but you get what I’m saying). It had nothing to do with her or the argument itself but the memory had been triggered and done what it always does whenever I think about it; it made me feel like crap. Do you ever get irritable when you feel like crap? I’m sure of it. As soon as I realized where the source of my irritation was coming from I was able to instantly relax and feel good again. I was aware of what was happening to me and the tension in my body just lifted away. As soon as I realized my memory was in the captain’s chair and had control of the wheel I jumped up and said “Objection your honor, leading the witness”.