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Society of Mind

17.9 different spans of memories

Everyone can master a grief but he who has it. —William Shakespeare

Consider the plight of a mother with a new infant. Her baby will demand her time for many years. Sometimes she must wonder, How does this baby justify such sacrifice? Various answers come to mind: Because I love it. Because someday it will care for me. Because it's here to carry on our line. But reasoning rarely brings answers to such questions. Usually, those questions simply fade away as parents continue to nurture their children as though they were parts of their own bodies. Sometimes, though, strains may overwhelm the mechanisms that protect each child from harm, and this results in tragedies.

These complex parent-to-child and child-to-parent bonds must be based on certain types of memory. Some memories are less changeable than others, and I suspect that attachment-bonds involve memory-records of a type that can be rapidly formed but then become peculiarly slow to change. On the child's side, perhaps these bonds are descended from the forms of learning called imprinting, with which many kinds of infant animals quickly learn to recognize their parents. On the parents' side, the adult animals of many species will reject infants not involved in bonding shortly after birth; then foster-parenting becomes impossible. Why should bonding memories be so hard to change? In animals, there usually are evolutionary disadvantages to raising the offspring of unrelated individuals. Human infants must develop under the additional constraint of requiring constant adult models as a basis for their personalities. Similar goal-affecting bonds could explain the often irresistible force of peer pressure in later life. Perhaps all such attachment-bonds exploit the same machinery.

Many animals form other kinds of social bonds as well, like those in which an individual selects a mate and then remains attached to it for life. Many people do this, too, and a number of the ones who don't have been observed to select, instead, from among alternatives of seemingly similar appearance or character — as though those persons were attached, if not to individuals, to certain constant prototypes. Other people frequently find themselves enslaved by infatuations that some parts of their minds find unwelcome but cannot prevent or overcome; once formed, those memory-bonds will only slowly fade away. The time spans of our different sorts of memories evolved to suit, not our own needs, but those of our ancestors.

We all know the seemingly inexorable time span of mourning, in which it often takes so long to accept the loss of those we love. Perhaps this, too, reflects the slowness of attachment-change, though it is only one factor. This could also be partially responsible for the prolonged psychological disability that can follow the experience of a physical, emotional, or sexual assault upon a person. One might ask, since there are so many other devastating aspects of such an experience, why it should involve any connection with attachment memory. I suspect that any form of intimacy, however unwelcome, has effects upon machinery shared by both attachment and sexuality,

and is liable to disturb or disrupt the machinery with which we make relationships in ordinary life. No matter how brief that violent episode, it may lead to long derangements in our usual relationships, in part because those agencies are slow to change. It doesn't help very much for the victim to try to view the situation neutrally, because the rest of the mind cannot control those agencies; only time can reconstruct their normal functioning. It is an injury more terrible than loss of sight or limb, to lose the normal use of the agencies with which one builds one's own identity.