Friday, October 17, 2008

Surviving a Conference Part I: Making Memories

Every conference, even the True Woman ‘08 Conference, has a powerful effect on the mind of the person who attends. Before I delve into the effect that a conference environment has on a person too deeply, I would like to describe a little bit about how the mind works to help you better understand how conferences challenge your critical thinking.

As the old theory goes and what we now know from brain imaging, memory is quite a complex thing. First a stimulus is introduced to a person, and they experience that stimulus. If one hears a sound, along with the sound, the mind also remembers what the person is also experiencing beyond the sound: sights, tactile sensations, taste, smell, emotions, old associated memory, etc. The memory becomes like a snapshot that is stored, but the sound becomes bound to all the other things that the person experienced at that time. All areas of the brain become involved in that memory, creating a circuit. If a stimulus is repeated many times, that circuit is strengthened.

I always think of a bit of an absurd example from when I was a young child In the fall and the spring, I was often sick with some upper respiratory problem and would have to be taken to the doctor. To get to the doctor’s office, we always drove by a park that seemed to have a high population of skunks, and the scent could often be noted when driving down that road, especially in the fall. Very near the doctor’s office was a McDonalds, one of the first in town, and my mother sometimes stopped there on the way home. McDonalds cheeseburgers are still my first choice for a convenient comfort food when I am ill which would seem to make sense. What is odd is that I can sometimes taste a cheeseburger when I have a very bad sore throat with a fever. What’s even more odd is that whenever I smell a skunk, I get very hungry for a cheeseburger from McDonalds only. And on rare occasions, I swear that I smell skunks after eating McDonalds french fries.

Psychology classifies this as classical conditioning, but it also demonstrates how this phase sequence creates a net of memory and experience and serves as the neurophysiologic basis of memory and consolidation of memory. Each single element is remembered, but the memory circuit also takes these separate and seemingly unrelated elements and works them together in a net of meaningfulness. Stimulation of one of the elements in the circuit sometimes can fire off the whole circuit. I have strong memories when I hear old songs on the radio, finding my mind pulled back to that memory. This is also a survival mechanism that stimulates problem-solving in the right side of the brain through intuition. If you get in your car and hear a noise that you don’t normally hear, your mind pays close attention to it. It may pull a surprising memory into your consciousness if that same sound reminds you of a sound you heard before in the past. If you were in danger when you heard this sound, your mind automatically pulls those memories into consciousness and stimulates the whole circuit. The whole circuit of memory may be needed to help you survive this similar situation.

Sometimes the sequence does not seem obvious and you often do not remember what stimulated the circuit. Pretend that you ate pistachio ice cream for the first time when you were visiting with your old friend. Twenty years later, having not seen your friend for several months, you have pistachio ice cream at lunchtime. You might “spontaneously” think of your friend as you're getting ready for bed that night. As you drift off to sleep, you find yourself thinking of that ice cream again through recalled memory, or find yourself dreaming of your friend. The phase sequence or circuit activates because of the ice cream trigger, but it continues to remain active even though the trigger is no longer present. This is called a reverberating circuit of memory, because the circuit of memory continues to vibrate in the mind and stimulates the other elements of memory in the snapshot after the activating stimulus has been removed.

Well, what does that have to do with a conference? Conferences set up their own phase sequences that are unique. The conference environment is usually unique, so it is more stimulating to the mind than your routine environment. The circuits then become more deeply fixed in your mind because they are unique and fresh, and we tend to remember the unusual. If the conference boasts a special name or unique term, it is also more stimulating, adding to the depth of the circuit as well as a new element. Is there a unique logo? Is there a theme? Do they give out a book bag or a portfolio with the emblem or logo embossed on it? Do they give you a handkerchief with the logo embroidered on it like they did at True Woman ‘08? Did they have a unique phrase or mantra that was repeated at gatherings? Did you buy a book at their book table? That book will be it’s own experience, but the book also becomes strongly associated with the conference.

All these things, anything different and unique will deepen the circuit of memory in the mind. Were you moved emotionally? Of course you were, and any variation in emotion that is different from your norm will strengthen the significance of the experience. When you see the logo and when you come across the embossed item months later, all you experienced will come back to your consciousness or will at least stimulate your subconscious mind, taking you back to that moment of time in your memory. There is a good chance, if the circuit wore deeply enough, that the trigger will start your circuits reverberating. You suddenly feel a million little memory elements sweep over you for just an instant, reinforcing every single element that was caught in your web of memory.

Again, all these things help us survive and help give our memories and even our moment to moment experience meaning and integration. A good conference will have those little cues to stimulate your memories and remind you of that moment in time. Along with the peripheral things like the hankie and the official pen with note pad, you also take with you all that was spoken and all that you did. Edifying conferences reinforce good messages and emotions, but people become very susceptible to covert messages and influence during these situations. Understanding vulnerability during these seasons helps us remain diligent to guard our hearts and minds at such gatherings.

Note: Above image of memory processing through the hippocampus from
Univeristy of Indiana website