the reptile remembers
Thursday, June 23 2005
Today I used a kind of low-odor oil-based paint to apply a final coat of waterproofing and mildew-resistance to the now-exposed masonry wall at the back of the primary guestroom closet. As I worked and after I finished, I found myself experiencing a nagging sense of familiarity with what little odor the paint was emitting. You know how it is with odor, how it seems to frame an experience at a deep, unconscious level. This probably has something to do with the fact that the odor sensors in the nose are actually parts of our brains and are connected directly to our reptilian brain's memory unit, which is distinct from the brain's higher-level memory machinery. In some sense we store memories of the same events in different ways in different parts of the brain, with our older reptilian brain getting a copy on the brain's equivalent of eight inch floppy disks while the primate brain gets it on DVD. One can conceivably forget all about something (or more probably, forget the method used to recall something) in the primate brain while still remembering it vividly in the reptilian brain.
And so today, when I was sensing that paint's particular fragrance, I was doing so foremost with the olfactory centers in the reptilian part of my brain and these were eliciting reptilian-style memories of the past. Such memories are intense and emotional, but there are no words associated with them and only through careful consideration is it possible to distinguish them from a simple change in mood.
What was I remembering? It wasn't entirely pleasant because it came with elements of humiliation and helplessness. Only gradually did I realize the connection: the paint I was using is the same paint used to coat the concrete block walls of elementary schools.
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