Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

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