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9/11 Memories and Neuroscience

As part of the opening 9/11 events at Emory there was an excellent panel discussion on memorialization moderated by the Center for Ethics, Dr. Edward Queen and led by ILA’s Dr. Angelika Bammer, and Psychology’s Dr. Marshall Duke, as well as his brother, Mike Duke, a survivor of the World Trade Center attack.

After Mike Duke shared the powerful story of his experience on 9/11, Dr. Marshall Duke said that, according to his studies, the sharing of 9/11 narratives have helped people expand their range of possibility, and perhaps the possibility or faith that good things can happen even after tragedy. Sharing “oscillating narratives,” as Dr. Duke put it, wherein both positive and negative narratives inform family histories, were healthier overall for an individual’s ability to cope in life.

Dr. Bammer expressed concern that in the post-9/11 world we have gained a reinforcement and cultivation of fear, an ever-growing powerful feeling of an “us vs. them” mentality.

One student from the audience, who was 16 when the bombing took place, asked what he should do with his knowledge of the bombing and the post-9/11 experience. Or specifically, where should he put “it” and what should he do with “it.”

When thinking about memorialization, we can re-examine the purpose of memory. From a biological standpoint, memory’s primary purpose is for learning.

I can give an example from my career as a Parkinson’s disease neuroscientist. The movement disturbances that occur in Parkinson’s disease are due to the death of a specific region in the brain. The peculiar thing about Parkinson’s Disease is that the symptoms don’t become apparent, arguably you wouldn’t even know you had Parkinson’s Disease, until 80% of those neurons are gone—so what is happening before that 80% is lost?

Some studies have suggested that your brain and your body “learn” to work with fewer cells. In this case, learning requires two processes: un-learning (essentially forgetting), and re-learning. Re-learning here means un-learning to produce movements with 100% of functioning brain cells and re-learning how to produce movements with a dwindling supply.

Others suggest that a consequence of losing 80% of those brain cells in that region is the inability to produce electrical patterns in brain cells that are associated with both learning (heightened sustained electrical activity) and un-learning (depressed electrical activity). Essentially, when you can no longer forget, you can no longer learn.

This is not to say we need to forget the horrible tragedy that happened 10 years ago, but maybe it’s not necessary to hold onto and cultivate the fear of that day. How do we learn from a tragedy like 9/11? A wiser person than me (and if you know who penned this please let me know) once said: The ordinary person prays that bad things won’t happen to them; the wise person prays for courage when they do.

The idea is not to perpetuate a theater of fear, but to reinforce thinking that reminds us to not be afraid. After 9/11, we saw remarkable resilience in communities. We were told stories (featured in the popular media as Dr. Bammer mentioned) that reminded us that we were not so different from those around us. We could appreciate the same qualities that others missed and cherished in their loved ones. We were reminded that we were all patriots, but we also should’ve been reminded of something much bigger—that’s we’re a product of all of our relationships and we are not really ever alone. Instead of heralding a culture of American individualism, maybe it should’ve been a time to herald the value of the inextricable interdependence of our relationships.

Some try to interpret the events of 9/11 as only being about the fragility of life and that memorialization and ritual should help us rebuild a world where we feel “safe,” back to “the good old days” when we knew what to expect. But this is a failing logic that celebrates the theater of fear that has reduced America to a spectacle. Instead I would invite a mediation on the following sentiment, one shared both by Zen philosophers and Ancient Greek philosophers alike: “You can never step in the same river twice.” Life is dynamic, impermanent, and ever-changing. Perhaps the one thing we can embrace throughout these changes, both literally and figuratively, is each other.

To answer the student’s question: What to do with the knowledge gained from living in a post 9/11 world? I suggest we choose to be the wise person and choose to not be afraid.

–Karen S. Rommelfanger, PhD

Emory Center for Ethics, Neuroethics Program

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2011). 9/11 Memories and Neuroscience. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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