Fibromyalgia and our memories, our brains

” Our memory is in large part the starting point for how we think, how our preferences form, and how we make decisions”, Maria Konnikova

Several weeks ago on CBC radio upon hearing an interview with Dr. Konnikova regarding the science of memory , I became intrigued with the ways in which she has based an understanding of neuroscience upon the brains and memories of two fictional characters- Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Being a Holmes lover and extremely interested in how the brain works- as my readers will well know from my many blogs, I hastened to read this amazing book regarding these two distinct minds which she dubs the brain attics. This term she pilfers from Holmes who said: “I consider a man’s [sic] brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” (cited in Konnikova, p. 26).

Chapter two regarding the concept of the brain attic was one which captured my intense interest as I have often referred to my own brain as one which is tired and needs emptying. I am hooked on wanting to change my brain and its bad/useless memories and having it become more like that of Holmes than Dr. Watson!  The Watson attic (which in my case is constantly on high alert (the amygdala) , is, in Konnikova’s words, “jumbled and largely mindless” p.29)  and needs cleaning out. I need my brain attic to be more observant and recognize the memories which precipitate continuous anxiety/fear.  More importantly her emphasis on meditation training is in line with my own thinking about the ways in which meditation can clear out the brain attic memories, although as Konnikova says, it takes practice, practice, practice.

As with all the books I suggest as important reading material for  people interested in how the brain and, especially memories affect those of us with fibromyalgia, I am leery about  giving away too much in-depth information regarding the content. I encourage readers to read the book in its entirety. IT IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT FIBROMYALGIA- THE READER IS WARNED! It is a book about forcing the mind to be more observant and logical. Here I am trying to join together relationships that I have not been able to read about elsewhere.

Fibromyalgia is a mammoth puzzle and “your neck  bone is connected to your head bone” ( a sentence from words to the song Dry Bones by James Weldon Johnson and J Rosamund Johnson). It is  an appropriate analogy here. Let me tire you once more with the ways in which I have to this point, unravelled what for me has become some major aspects of the dis-ease. How to present it? A circle is not appropriate, nor is it linear so that visually one cannot uncover what I consider to be the gestalt, the complete picture. It seems to me I can only repeat words which are linked within a mishmash of brain/memories in a person who suffers from a Watson-type brain. What follows is my description of the fibromyalgia person.

First, there is the highly anxious individual who may or may not have developed anxiety in utero or in childhood (the old nature-nurture issue). This person has stored  long term memories in the attic’s ‘storage space’ which both Lars Clausen (in his book Fibromyalgia Relief) and  Dr.Konnikova point out is called consolidation. It is likely that childhood trauma has been responsible for this storage. Every time a new stressful event occurs, the file (as Konnikova has coined it) is pulled out and  more is added to this memory. The attic becomes more cluttered.

Secondly, this highly anxious person is at the same time  the highly sensitive person whose fight- or – flight Watson- brain is on the look out for  even more and more anxious memories to add to the file. It does not discriminate- “What’s stored is organized according to some associative system…” ( Konnikova, p.31), called ‘associative activation’. With the Holmes- mind one can acknowledge the emotion – in the case of fibromyalgia it is fear/anxiety-but you cannot let it get in the way of objective reasoning (p.40).

Thirdly, we now have the body being affected by this constant hyper-vigilance of the central nervous system, from that part of the brain which is  always on the look-out for new anxieties to add to the file. Other systems are affected, the muscular-skeletal seems to be the first to go!  The immune system becomes compromised. Pain and subsequent fatigue begin, followed by a myriad of other disquieting symptoms, causing more anxiety to add to the memory pile up.

Clausen writes of memory reconsolidation which some neuroscientists are advocating. As Clausen has written: “Unless we reconsolidate the emotions we have of our past memories, we will continue reacting to the old emotion of each memory” (p.71). In other words we must clean out the attics of our brains! Consolidation is considered to take place within the first few hours so it is necessary to stop these emotions from becoming part of the furniture of the attic! However, in spite of the controversy that surrounds the issue of reconsolidation there are those who suggest that previous memories can be made labile through reactivation of the memory, such as Clausen’s technique of  ICE (previous blog).

Konnikova advocates being mindful, but there is more to changing the brain and subsequently those unwelcome stored memories. The vast scientific literature that has been presented over the past few decades based upon the neuroplasticity of the brain points to other techniques as well as learning to observe diligently. Movement  such as Chi-gong , yoga, dancing , taking on new tasks that are creative and repetitive, music, art all feed into the realm of strategies that together can activate new pathways. We are seeking to develop a Holmes brain where “thoughts, properly filtered, can no longer slyly influence your behavior without your knowledge”, (.p21). But Konnikova warns: “It won’t be easy”, (p.21).

“You know my methods, Watson”, Sherlock Holmes


6 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia and our memories, our brains

  1. Valda Garner

    Hi Barbara, I have thought about these same concepts, but have not read about these concepts before. I am an observer of human behavior including my own. The way in which I am dealing with unpleasant memories is to either limit contact with people involved in these memories or to totally avoid contact with those people. I am careful about who I spend time with and how I spend my time so that new positive memories are formed as I move forward in life. This includes the doctors that provide care. I seek to surround myself with warm, positive, and supportive people. It is so true that our brains can become quite muddled with thoughts and memories that are self-defeating and negative. It is very hard work especially when the constant nagging of not feeling well interferes. Healing takes a great deal of time. After all, we didn’t get here over night. Enjoy your blog so much! Warmly, Valda

  2. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Valda:
    I agree that surrounding oneself with positive friends is the way to go! It certainly is one strategy for a better quality life.
    However, the main issue is how to unclutter the brain with the memories that evoke bad responses. We cannot completely surround ourselves with positive people every minute of our lives.
    Then, of course, there are the memories that we have which become sparked by even small events, like, for example, witnessing a traffic accident or wondering if the new pain we have is a heart attack and so on. Then we begin to ruminate and away we go, stuck with old memories that are piled up with more ‘new’ clutter.
    I guess the trick is to stop ourselves when we are tempted to our usual catastrophic thinking, keep the amygdala in check, find strategies that will be more observant of our thoughts and live in the moment, not the past nor the future. If only we could do this easily, sigh!

  3. Stuart Clark

    Hi Barbara
    It is about re-thinking (or thinking better) althogh I don’t know how to do this?
    I’ve had another big hit of Fibromyalgia following an emotional trauma in March (the end of a relationship) and strangely (the fibro fog is making the spelling poor, sorry) have had the same nightmare (not remembered the next morning) as I did during previous “big hits” and when being hit by a car at the age of 5 years old (multiple injuries)

    Kindest regards,

  4. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Stuart: Although I am not a country music fan I do like Willy Nelson – he has a wonderful saying I read recently: ” Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones you’ll start having positive results”. Hmmm, not so easy to do, as you say… but mindfulness meditation works, yet takes discipline and is not an easy,quick fix. Best wishes, Barbara

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