Bad. It’s a silly theory and a very silly diagnosis, yet that is what my doctor diagnosed me as having. A bad brain. He said my bad brain was the cause of my anxiety and panic attacks decades ago. (Clearly he knew nothing about neuroscience or the two types of memory.)

His bad brain theory was wrong.

The bad brain theory totally ignores the fact that anxiety and panic come from a very good brain…a brain that is doing its job to keep you safe. The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald understood this. He penned, “So we beat on, boats against the current, some borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And writer Eugene O’Neill said, “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” It seems we can not escape the past, and its grip on our thinking and feeling.

Or can we?

Since the dawn of time when man first walked upright, our nervous systems were biologically wired to remember every threat to our existence so we could avoid it in the future. Since we are a somewhat disadvantaged species in the wild, (no talons, brute strength, fangs, venom, etc. ) we tend to react to “false positives,” that is, to react to learned signs of danger even when there is no danger present. The distressing memory of a past event that was dangerous or threatening then is not a sign of a dysfunction or disorder, but rather a sign the brain is working to ensure survival. The emotional brain is actually working properly. 

There are two types of memory. Episodic and Emotional Implicit. Episodic memory is the narrative about the events that happened, or the story line. Emotional implicit memory, or nonverbal memory is the feelings about the event.  Both are stored in different areas of the brain.  To overcome being stuck tirelessly in the past to distressing emotions borne on the back of traumatic events, we need to retrain the brain. Can this be done?

Russian psychologist Pavlov showed the world with his famous salivating dog that the brain is tough to trick into changing once it has been taught a response. The neural circuits of learning were thought to be enduring. It seemed that once learned, always learned.

Enter good news. In 1997, scientists showed that the brain was very capable of unlearning, essentially erasing the emotional memory from the nervous system. Brain researchers called this process Memory Reconsolidation. In 2004, scientist Hector Maldonado showed how this can be done on crabs in a lab in Argentina. And the good news is the process works on human beings too.

I’ve got to scoot out to the nursery and buy more flowers. But I will continue this tomorrow.

Lest you think I am far more intelligent than I really am, I am culling this information from an article my dear friend and colleague, social neuroscientist translator Dr. Mark Brady sent me.