By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
I only remember a little about being 7 years old. I remember my second-grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Wood, and she had beautiful dark hair and said I was good at reading. Other than that, I remember only one thing – I was one of the 80 million people who watched the movie Jaws when it aired on the ABC network in November 1979.
Why was a 7-year-old kid watching Jaws in the family living room? Good question. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but my best guess is that my brother, who was 14 then, wanted to watch it because sharks were cool. My parents probably thought I wasn’t paying attention to the TV anyway since I was usually preoccupied with sticking colored pegs into my Light Bright.
But I saw things that night. I saw those unsuspecting legs dangling in the water. I watched as the fin sliced through the water like a knife. I heard those two terrifying notes of music – “duuunnn dun, duuunnn dun” – a foreboding beat growing as frantic as my pulse.
I didn’t realize how far that shark swam into my adolescent brain until the next night at bath time. Because that was the night I started watching the drain every time I climbed into the tub. I didn’t know what might be lurking under those bubbles, and I needed to spring up at the first sight of a fin rising from the depths.
Ridiculous? Yes. But most 7-year-olds don’t have a firm grip on physics or plumbing. They do, however, understand terror. My young brain learned you shouldn’t go into the water. And if you do – because your mother insists on personal hygiene – you’ve got to watch out in case something chomps down on your naked leg, too.
On any given day, I can describe exactly how it felt to stare down at the bathtub drain as a scared kid. But I usually can’t remember what I ate for lunch the day before yesterday. Why does the human brain remember a non-existent shark threat for over 40 years, yet it can’t hang onto the memory of meatloaf from 48 hours ago?
The good news is that scientists are figuring this out for us. According to a recent article by Nice News, researchers put snails into petri dishes and then gave them fruit-flavored water. The snails’ body language basically said, “Meh.” But then the scientists put the snails into an intense solution of sugar water, to which the snails said, “Yeah, baby!”
The snails loved the sugar water so much that the next time the researchers placed them in fruity water, they drank it because they associated it with the memory of sugar water. The research showed that strong emotions – like the joy of a sugar rush or the horror of a shark attack – help the brain form long-term memories.
When the research team repeated this test but used less concentrated sugar water, the snails didn’t make the associated memory. They probably took a sip and said, “Ugh. It’s the diet version.” (Let the record show that I’m paraphrasing on behalf of the snails.)
Of course, snails and humans aren’t the same. The test subjects in this research are slow. And allegedly, our brains are much bigger than theirs, although that’s hard to confirm by the number of people who rage on a plane and hit flight attendants. (I think those human brains were likely dumbed down by a petri dish full of vodka.)
But the thing to remember is that strong emotions – especially from new experiences – will give us what scientists call a “learning-rich period.” We can use that time to cement new memories that’ll stick around for decades instead of disappearing like Tuesday’s meatloaf.
And just like snails on a sugar rush, we could all stand to learn a thing or two.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book is available on Amazon.