Mem'ries...all alone in the moonlight...

I have a memory, it seems, for the most bizarre facts related to my eating disorder. For instance: I have these packets of instant oatmeal type cereal. I had the occasional packet, and then wouldn't eat them for a year or two because they had too many calories. After a year or so, I find the box in my parents' pantry. I reach in to grab a packet, and I think, "I bet this has X calories." I flip the box around to read the label- and there it was. Each packet did, indeed, have X calories.

This is also why I have trouble with the little flavored coffee creamers. When I was working at the office-turned-giant-Weight-Watchers-cult, one of the ladies had to post a sign on the little bowl of coffee creamers, announcing how many calories, fat grams, and sugar grams each thing had. Still remember it. Granted, when I'm guzzling several cups in a row as I do now because of the 12+ hour days I have with the commute, all of that creamer leaves me feeling vaguely ill.

The point has nothing to do with oatmeal or coffee creamer. It has to do with the way that so many people with eating disorders remember these factoids. So many other things, I can't remember from that time. It's as if my memory is this giant slice of Swiss cheese: largely intact but so many holes!

I'm not the only person to notice this. A group of researchers in Turkey* did a series of directed forgetting experiments in people with anorexia to examine memory bias. Directed forgetting is an experiment where you're asked to learn something and then told to forget it. You're NOT told not to think about it- this technique, called thought suppression is notoriously ineffective. By telling yourself not to think about something, you're automatically thinking about it.

Both a group of people with anorexia and a group of healthy control subjects were given two sets of words: neutral words and disorder-related words. They were then told whether to remember those words or forget them. Although both groups did, indeed, forget some of the words, the group with anorexia didn't really forget those words related to the eating disorder. Says the researchers: "Our findings support the existence of a strong memory bias for disorder-relevant information in patients with anorexia nervosa, who had difficulty in avoiding the processing of information that they were asked to forget."

So why is this? Could it be that people with anorexia obsess so much over food and weight and calories and exercise that the triggers are so primed that one mention of a word sets off the series of events? That is, are the tracks of a sufferer's thoughts so ingrained that your brain just goes there? Is it an emotional response? Something more akin to an addict's response when seeing an old street corner where he used to score dope?

Any thoughts?

*If there were other scientists on the paper from Hungary, it would have been too ironic.

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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why it happens, but I definitely do this. I remember the worst of my ED behaviors vividly, yet sometimes I barely remember what I did yesterday.

Harriet said...

I notice and remember everything to do with eating disorders, and I never had one.

I wonder if it's just a case of being sensitized, one way or another, to a particular set of words or ideas. Once you're sensitized it's hard to be desensitized.

A:) said...

I can relate on the calorie thing -- even the smallest nutritional information facts of the most rarest eaten foods I can remember

Perhaps it is a matter of what is most important to us -- for example, I could not remember history dates as I find the subject boring. . .


katie said...

there are so many food-related facts that I wish I could wipe from my memory, but I just can't. sometimes these facts make it feel like my ED is jumping out from behind a bush to ambush me. i hate feeling so darn crazy!

Carrie said...

I still find it hard to forget these things. Some of it is, I think, that innate emotional response, whether it's anxiety or--dare I say--nostalgia or whatever. It just amplifies the thoughts, turns up the volume.

I've had some fairly emotionally traumatic situtions in the past few years (related indirectly to the ED), and it's kind of the same thing. I can't forget, the the strangest things will send those thoughts flying back.

Cammy said...

I have definitely experienced this, I remember pretty much any calorie/fat statistic the first time I see it, I could probably list thousands.

I think memory bias is an everyday phenomenon, though, not specific to eating disorders, or any disorders, for that matter. Think of all the kids that can memorize the names, symbols, stats, etc for hundreds of Pokemon, but then struggle with remembering times tables at school. People's brains create connections faster/better for things they care about more, and eating disordered people care about food. Neat study, though, glad they gathered data to support this, it seems like it should have implications for psychology as a whole, outside EDS, just to verify a common feature of our brains...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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