Want to be grateful? Remember to remember.


“Choose [your memories] carefully. Memories are all we end up with … You’ll have a thousand pasts and no future.” –The Secret Behind Their Eyes (film)

Robert Emmons summarizes research on gratitude and reviews the impact of it at a social level.

He closes with thoughts on cultivating it at an individual level.

Gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. This is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, allows us to flourish, it is difficult. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done.  A number of evidence based-strategies, including self-guided journaling, reflective thinking, and letter writing and gratitude visits have shown to be effective in creating sustainable gratefulness.

At the core of all of these practices, however diverse, is memory. Gratitude is about remembering.  . . . A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart—it is the way that the heart remembers. The memory of the heart includes the memory of those we are dependent on just as the forgetfulness of dependence is unwillingness or inability to remember the benefits provided by others. Do you want to be a grateful person? Then remember to remember.

The memory disease

"It is by self-forgetting that one finds..." --St. Francis of Assissi
“It is by self-forgetting that one finds…” –St. Francis of Assissi

Authors Michael W. Clune and Tao Lin discussed their recent books for Believer magazine.

Tao Lin points out a theme of seeking to get outside oneself as a response to “internal malfunctioning or uncontrollable-seeming, undesirable behavior.”

He points to this passage from book, White Out:

The only way to recover from the memory disease is to forget yourself. You see, I was in a memory trap. In order to get out I had to forget myself. In order to forget about myself, I had to be sure there was something outside to grab on to. But the memory diseases had trapped all my senses. I couldn’t see outside. In order to get even a glimpse of what’s outside, I had to forget myself completely.

Clune frames it in the context of his recovery:

The practice of getting out of myself has been crucial for staying off dope, and I kind of wanted to protect it from analysis. My experience with addiction convinced me that there was no getting out from any place within myself. My memories, my impulses, my reflexes, my relationships, my goals, my future, past, and present were all terminally infected. So to escape the memory disease—to escape addiction—I had to start over, outside me. How to get outside?

The first step was forming new habits. Every night, I just wrote a list of things that are good to do, and the next day I read the list and did them—did them until I didn’t have to read the list anymore. Brush my teeth. Eat a banana. Work on my dissertation for three hours. Take a walk. Go to an NA meeting. Repeat. Pretty soon I’m a different person. The self isn’t really that solid; it’s mostly composed of things from the outside world. And habits are the tape and rope and staples that get things outside stuck in us.

Sometimes people tell me they’re scared to get into recovery, because they’re scared they’ll lose the “real me.” I’ve never been able to understand this. I’ve always been very happy to lose the real me, it’s just hard to find takers. Habit is a taker.

This really resonates with my experiences in early recovery.

I love the framing as a memory disease and self-forgetting via seemingly unrelated actions as a path to freedom. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading more from him and thinking more about it.


a thousand pasts and no future

“Choose [your memories] carefully. Memories are all we end up with … You’ll have a thousand pasts and no future.” –The Secret Behind Their Eyes (film)

forget about the sunshine by whatmegsaid

A friend shared this On Point episode with me and made a connection between it and resentments.

This matter of appropriate, helpful, deliberate forgetting is very fascinating.

We’ve talked before about role of the brain’s memory circuits. I’ve also been very interested in the similarities between PTSD and addiction. Both are characterized by intrusive, powerful, multi-sensory, involuntary memories.

The On Point episode discusses that the capacity this helpful forgetting relies on executive function which we’ve discussed is impaired AND depleted.

So…addicts may have limited capacity for this kind of helpful forgetting. Maybe this explains and supports 12 step recovery’s emphasis on letting go of resentments.

Further, the idea in the quote above may help explain the emphasis on gratitude and the power of gratitude lists. Aren’t gratitude lists really an attempt to choose what to remember?

Shaking the neurobiological monkey on the back

More spooky memory research with implications for trauma and addiction:

The researchers injected a small protein – a peptide called ZIP – directly into an area of the addicted rats’ basal forebrain called the nucleus accumbens, which controls pleasure and reward and which has been demonstrated to be connected to drug addiction.

Afterward, the rats were returned to their pens to check their reactions. Rather than seeking out the place where they had been getting their “fixes” of cocaine, the rats ignored it, indicating that memories linked to their addiction had been erased.

Cultivating executive function

1 jour, 1 photo 27/01/11
by BlondieISfuckinCrazy

A few months ago I was listening to this episode of Being on an education researcher who believes that the development of executive function should be a central focus in classroom education. The conversation was fascinating and I kept thinking that this could represent an important developmental task in early recovery and treatment. (We know that one aspect of the neurobiology of addiction is that the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function, is impaired.) She talked about a multidimensional approach to this that includes strategies as diverse as play, rote memorization and teaching strategies that encourage students to pause before acting and train students to pay sustained attention to a subject.

Over the last day, one of our staff, Matt, shared this link with me.

They found that this type of training improved working memory and also reduced their discounting of delayed rewards.

“The legal punishments and medical damages associated with the consumption of drugs of abuse may be meaningless to the addict in the moment when they have to choose whether or not to take their drug. Their mind is filled with the imagination of the pleasure to follow,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “We now see evidence that this myopic view of immediate pleasures and delayed punishments is not a fixed feature of addiction. Perhaps cognitive training is one tool that clinicians may employ to end the hijacking of imagination by drugs of abuse.”

Dr. Bickel agrees, adding that “although this research will need to be replicated and extended, we hope that it will provide a new target for treatment and a new method to intervene on the problem of addiction.”

He also shared this story on recent findings from neurological studies of meditation:

…scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

Could strategies focused one developing executive function become important in addiction treatment?