To live without pain or dance without soul?

One component of my job is to keep abreast about all the latest goings-on in the field of psychological/psychiatric research (a) so we can include news briefs of the most interesting developments in our publication and (b) so I don’t sound like an idiot when I’m talking to our contributors. Most press releases that come my way seem to be generated by Captain Obvious (“Women Who Experience Gender-Based Violence Have Higher Incidence of Anxiety”), but every now and then along comes something eyebrow-raising, like this: “Drug May Help Overwrite Bad Memories.”

Photo credit: © Mark Carrel / Fotolia

According to a Canadian study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, recalling painful memories while taking the drug metyrapone can reduce the brain’s ability to re-record the negative emotions associated with them (Explanation: manipulating cortisol close to the time of forming new memories can decrease the negative emotions that may be associated with them). The press release goes on to explain the study procedure:

The study included 33 men who learned a story composed of neutral and negative events. After 3 days they were divided into three groups: Participants in the first group received a single dose of metyrapone, the second received a double dose, and the third were given placebo. They were then asked to remember the story. Their memory performance was evaluated again 4 days later, once the drug had cleared out. The researchers found that the men in the group who received two doses of metyrapone were impaired when recalling the negative events of the story, while they showed no impairment recalling the neutral parts of the story.

For those not quite ready for a quick prescription of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, good news: Metyrapone is no longer commercially produced.

But what if it were? What if that magic pill did exist, and all of the pain and angst of your past could be deleted? Would you take it?

The press release above is actually a few months old, but I started thinking about it again last night as I was watching So You Think You Can Dance, as contestants Melanie and Sasha were talking about where they find the emotion that drives their intensely powerful movement. Sasha, after performing in a duet about manipulation and abuse, alluded to “having been hurt” in the past. Melanie, in tears, talked about her deceased father, physically in tears as she began one of the most achingly eloquent solos of the competition.

If these girls were to have taken that magic drug, would such beautiful art even exist?

So often in yoga or Eastern religion discourse, we are taught that the past is the past. Acknowledge it and move on. Yet, isn’t it in those times of deep contemplation and reminiscence that the most powerful works of art emerge? My god, if everyone who suffered a broken heart erased that memory from their brains, the world would be devoid of some of the best ballads, poetry, paintings, orchestrations, and ballets.

There are periods of my life I’d like to forget. I’ll be going about with my day fine and dandy when BOOM! Well, hello bad memory! I didn’t see you coming, and to tell you truth, you have made me quite angry/sad/confused.

It’s not pleasant getting socked off-guard by icky thoughts of the past, yet at the same time it is that unease that has given depth to my dance and writing. I was a talented writer in my youth, but only to an extent. I was young; my words lacked experience. How can one write poetry about the injustices of life when you are only 14 and have lived a comfortable existence? All I cared about then was the skeleton, the technique: that lines rhymed and the meter stuck. It is the same with dance; I was a dedicated dance student through grade school but little emotion came through in my high hitch kicks and straddle jumps. I was good at dancing–I remembered routines and could execute them gracefully–but the flesh of my bare-bones dancing took years to develop.

No amount of master classes or instruction videos could give me the depth that real life–love, loss, betrayal, redemption–brought forth to my movement. Every misstep I took or misfortune that was thrust upon me made me weak in that moment but stronger for the future. Events that brought me to my knees and hurt so badly that I didn’t even care about dancing anymore–surprise!–today have only made my dancing richer and more three-dimensional. And without a doubt, my dancing 10, 20, 30 years from now won’t be the same as it is today. It’s a bit cruel that by the time we reach an age of such wisdom and experience–a time when our dancing would reflect decades of memories–our bodies are breaking down. If only an 80-year-old could dance in an 18-year-old’s body!

(Returning to the memory-erasing drug, though, I should note that the investigators conducted the study mostly with people with posttraumatic stress disorder in mind; we’re talking soldiers, victims of horrific crimes, etc, not people trying to recover from a bad break-up. Although painful memories may add depth to artistic endeavors, I am not advocating that veterans who have witnessed their friends perish in a land mine hang onto those memories in the name of art.)

As Thais recently noted in her blog, traumas need to be released:

If we do not consciously work through our traumas and release the caught up energy in our bodies, that force is going to come out one way or another. Some it’s by a physical illness, others it’s by addictions or eating disorders. Just look at the world around you, nothing good comes out of compression. Finding that release valve is what keeps us sane. Some may find release through dance, sports, yoga, therapy, etc. It’s important to find the right activity for you and your body.

So, now, comes the million-dollar question: Do you take the magic pill…or do you dance?