|Microscopes and Memories
||[Jan. 19th, 2011|03:03 am]
Kelly J. Cooper
While shopping for presents a few weeks ago, I wandered through Henry Bear Park, the newish toy shop (one of a small chain) in the Porter Square shopping center. I had a moment of envy, thinking about how kids today get to play with such marvelous toys, toys that are more detailed, more interesting, more brightly-colored, and generally WAY cooler than the toys I played with as a child.
In that moment, I was hit with a bit of nostalgia for my childhood and I took a mental pause. Most of my childhood was sad and lonely. Was this a happy memory? Was it a flood of emotion over something that never happened but that I wanted? What was I actually missing rather than imagining I was missing?
As I poked around the feelings involved, it occurred to me that I missed being able to just stop and sit down, wherever I was at the particular moment, and closely investigate something. A flower, a rock, a bug, a frog… whatever caught my fancy.
Now, I’m not one for propriety, so there’s nothing to stop me from plopping my ass down on the ground and investigating. But things have changed and while I do stop and look at odd things—in fact, I frequently document them with my digital camera and post them to the LJ group found_objects—it’s not the act of investigating that I miss. I followed my feelings and thoughts back to their source. What I miss is the sense of discovery. I have bashed open enough quartz rocks to see their glittering innards that the act no longer holds much interest for me. What I miss is the excitement over seeing what’s inside the rock or in the pond or under the hedge.
And then I recovered a memory—at least, I think it’s a memory—that I used to have a microscope. Not only that, but I learned how to prepare slides, so in addition to looking at the slides that were included with the microscope, I made my own. Which brought up another pleasant memory, one of a science teacher surprised and appreciative that I knew the proper way to prepare a slide (smear, dye, lower the slide cover so that one edge is touching the slide and then let it drop… this minimizes air bubbles trapped under the glass).
What’s interesting to me is that, a few years ago, I’d searched all over for a microscope to buy as a gift for a young friend who was (if I recall correctly) turning 7 at the time. And I found it at the Henry Bear Park in North Cambridge after trying Toys R Us and Stella Bella (this may be some weird retro-coincidence). I was delighted to give the gift; he was delighted to receive it. I’d gotten the idea because a mutual (grown-up) friend of ours had a microscope-like device set up on his desk and both my young friend and I often looked at things through its lens. But you could put rocks and coins and what-have-you there as it was set up to magnify them for greater detail, not to examine them on a cellular level. But I thought a microscope would be an excellent toy for such a curious intelligence.
In addition to purchasing the microscope, I looked high and low and online for a book about microscopes to both guide the budding agent of discovery in his endeavors and to provide him with ideas of what to examine. But I couldn’t find much—lots of books on the topic are out of print.
But while I was doing all this searching for and thinking about microscopes, why did I fail to remember that I had one? Or, maybe I did remember in some vague way, but the feelings that flooded me recently as I wandered about, looking for presents, were nice, positive, cheerful memories. I definitely did NOT recall these lovely memories a few years ago, when actively invested in acquiring a microscope and its accouterments.
Is it possible that I could not access the happy stuff in my brain while my brain was unhappy? Is the antidepressant that I am currently on, which is working very well thank you, helping me to access happier memories? Or painting a happy coating over neutral memories? Or even neutralizing my recollections to make them less horrible because my depression had tainted them all with misery?
If the book I’m reading is right, it’s a matter of memory. I talked about this book to several folks this past weekend at Arisia. It’s The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge MD. I just read a part that talks about how the hippocampus (or hippocampi as we have two, one in each lobe) is responsible for turning short term memory into long term memory. Depressed people have shrunken hippocampi. People on antidepressants have increased neuron growth in their hippocampi. This is blowing my mind. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts when I finish the book, but so far (at page 244) I can't recommend it highly enough.