Friday, February 15, 2008

Emotional Pain

On Thursday’s NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross talked with Martha Weinman Lear, author of Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When and Why of Normal Memory Loss. [An excerpt from her book is found here.] Lear talked about some of the latest findings regarding memory and aging. I was particularly interested in Lear’s comment that memory of physical pain is not retained while emotional pain can remain as fresh as when it first happened.

Lear talked about the death of her husband and how the pain of his loss was still with her—that she could easily recall the emotions she felt. In contrast she states that it is probably important that we not remember physical pain—remembering a broken arm she points out could be debilitating.

Lear’s comments make a lot of sense. I have little memory of the actual physical pain involved with my triple bypass operation. I can intellectually recall the experience, but I can’t reproduce what I felt. On the other hand, I can intensely recall the emotional pain I felt with my call from my uncle telling me that my father had committed suicide.

I’ve been wondering how her discussion ties into a theory we studied in drama called the
James-Lange theory. William James and Carl Lange basically suggest that our physiological reactions, such as panting, heart rate, muscular tension, lead us to then experience what we call emotions. According to the two of them, our physical reactions come first; we interpret these motor responses as emotions. One of my acting teachers stressed how the theory played out in terms of theatre. According to him, if an actor knows that his response interpreted as anger involves more concentrated and faster breathing, faster heart rate, clinched fists, wrinkling of the forehead, then by reproducing those responses, the actor will find he is angry.

So is our memory of emotional pain tied into physiological reactions to a situation?

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