The Blind Spot

In his book The Emotional Brain, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux tells the story of a woman. And this one’s a gem. You see this woman had no ability to make new memories as a result of damage to her brain. She simply couldn’t remember things that she had experienced only moments before.

The more I think about the tragedy of this, the more I value the wonderful brain I have.

Under the care of a doctor, he would walk in to her room and greet her, shaking her hand. But if he left the room and returned only a few minutes later she would have forgotten she’d ever met him. Each time they met he would have to reintroduce himself. Over and over, again and again.

One day the doctor did something a little different. Entering her room, he put out his hand to greet her but with a tack concealed in his palm. Needless to say, when she shook his hand it hurt and she pulled back.

Quickly forgotten you might think?

But the very next time he returned to the room to greet her, this intelligent woman refused to shake his hand. She couldn’t tell him why, she just wouldn’t do it. Some part of her remembered and while she couldn’t recall it consciously, she knew this doctor had caused her pain.

The thing is we have (at least) two memory systems. The one where we consciously recall things. And another that stores our emotional memories. Sometimes the two intersect and we might remember an incident that caused us pain. But just as with this woman, there are things that traumatise us emotionally that we may not recall consciously.

And this it seems is a great screaming blind spot in cancer treatment.

Not to mention the rest of life.

The emotional traumas we carry that we have no conscious memory of. The emotional traumas that may well remain even after our physical treatment is finished. The emotional traumas that can flood inflammatory chemicals into our bodies without our conscious knowledge. The problem is inflammation is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic pain, all the big ones. It doesn’t bode well. And I can only wonder how much of it stems from emotional injuries – the ones we may be afraid to face, as well as the emotional injuries we are unaware of.

What you don’t know can hurt you. But fortunately there is a way to gently heal our emotional selves without the need to relive the trauma.

Isn’t it time we opened our eyes to the blindspot and make our emotional healing just as important as the physical?


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