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Returning to an Unchanged Place Reveals How You Have Changed

Why does returning to a place that remains the same reveal how you've evolved?

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Nelson Mandela said famously, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to see the ways that you yourself have changed." When was the last time you made a pilgrimage back to a very familiar place and realized all the various ways that you had metamorphized since the last time you were there?  

Why does returning to a familiar place that remains the same reveal the ways that you've evolved since the last time you were there? The answer lies in your neural networks and how the brain encodes memories.

Every memory of a place, a song, a photograph, or a smell, that remains unchanged is represented by a specific neural network called an "engram." 

Almost every year, I make a pilgrimage to the 'Big Island' of Kona, Hawaii. I used to go annually to compete in the Ironman triathlon and now I go back to cheer on other triathletes in the World Championships, or just to vacation. 

Kona is deeply embedded with memories that have been seared into my brain through neural encoding. Things like the smell of the Plumeria trees and the scent of a Banana Boat sunscreen that I can only ever find at the ABC stores on All'i Drive, bring back vivid Technicolor memories from decades past, as if they happened yesterday.

When the flashbacks of old memories are overlayed with the new memories being formed, they create a modified neural network or "engram" that incorporates the old with the new. Luckily, in the moments before your brain has integrated the new stimuli with the former engram, there is a small window of time in which you can take inventory and evaluate how much you've changed since the last time you were there. 

Kiehl's Since 1851, used with permission.
Christopher Bergland making headway in near 130 degree temperatures through Death Valley. 
Source: Kiehl's Since 1851, used with permission.

Remembrance of Things Past

Is there a place from your past that has a particular smell that triggers a wave of either positive or negative memories whenever you revisit? Most of us have this experience at Thanksgiving or other big holidays when all of the smells coming from the kitchen blend with the unique smell of your family home and force you to automatically reminisce on a visceral level. 

The next time you go home for the holidays, try to have your antennae up for the flood of memories that occur when you first walk in the door. Taking inventory of where you are in your life now compared to what you've felt when you were in this "unchanged place" in the past is a wonderful opportunity for growth. 

Watercolor by Mary Jo Litchard (my mom), Used with Permission
Source: Watercolor by Mary Jo Litchard (my mom), Used with Permission

Olfaction is one of our most ancient and primal senses. As an athlete, I would use specific essential oils and essences to encode a specific scent with positive associations of being safe and at home.

When I was in scary territory—like the lava fields of Kona or swimming in the breeding ground of Great White sharks in South Africa—I would feel less afraid if I took a whiff of an encoded scent. 

I keep all of these essences and essential oils in a special wooden box. Sometimes, if I want to go back to the places of my past and reminisce, I'll wear one of the old fragrances which remains unchanged. Doing so gives me an opportunity to take inventory of how I've changed since then, and ways in which I'd like to keep evolving. 

The perfect example of this is my green bottle of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne that I wore religiously in the early 80s as a hormonally charged teenager. It's fun to put that cologne on now because it gives me major flashbacks and actually makes me feel young again, too. Do you have a perfume or cologne from your past that you, or someone that you had a strong attachment to, wore that gives you flashbacks?

The smell of yellow Dial soap which I used as a teenager does this for me, too. A few days ago, I washed my hands at a Thai restaurant that had obviously put Dial soap in the generic dispenser...  I was amazed at how vividly all of the people and emotions from High School came rushing back. Again, it was a perfect opportunity to take note of who I am today and how I've evolved for better or worse. 

Unfortunately, the power of olfaction can be emotionally overwhelming if it triggers flashbacks to a traumatic experience. Recently on 60 Minutes, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) said that he can't go to the gas station anymore because the smell of petrol reminds him of being back in Iraq. 

From my life experience, I've found that if I open up an old memory box by revisiting a place, a smell, or a photograph—that remains unchanged and has deeply rooted negative associations—that it creates a window of opportunity to weave in positive associations and dilute the traumatic associations held in the engram. 

As an athlete, I would also put images on my fridge that evoked a sense of calm and inner peace that I would visualize when the reality of the situation felt like hell. Surrounding yourself with photographs that remain unchanged and encoding these into your memory can create a useful tool for transporting yourself back to a serene place in your mind's eye using your imagination or during meditation in times of distress. 

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

Golden Oldies Can Take You Back to a Place that Remains Unchanged 

Have you ever noticed that when you hear a song that you haven't heard in a really long time that all of the memories associated with that time and place in your life remain much more vivid than if it's an old song that you hear practically everyday?

The engram associated with an old song is like a fossil that is eternally preserved at a neural level if it's not reactivated. Every time you open up that memory box by hearing the song again new memories are woven into the neural tapestry. This is hugely beneficial when trying to re-wire a PTSD trigger, but it can also dilute the associations of an old song if it's overplayed. 

When was the last time that an old song caught you off guard and took you back to a time and place from your past like it was yesterday? I had that experience recently with the Fleetwoood Mac song I Don't Want to Know.

Like millions of people in the 70s, I played the album Rumours ad nauseum to the point that I got so sick of it that I never listen to it anymore. The other day, I heard I Don't Want to Know on the radio and it really wowed me that the song had the power to take me right back to 1977. If there's an old song that you haven't heard in a long time, why not seek it out today and see where it takes you.  

Conclusion: Using the Things that Remain Unchanged for Personal Growth

"Returning to a place that remains unchanged to see the ways that you yourself have changed" is a valuable tool for taking inventory of where you've been and charting a course for where you want to go with your life.

Using actual physical travel back to the geographical locations of your past that are deeply embedded with memories at a neural level is one way to return to these places—but you can also use music, smells, or a photograph to revisit these places of your past and use these unchanged things to see how you yourself have changed.

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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