A Neurobiological Approach to the Power of Place
After graduating from my alma mater six months ago, I find myself once again writing in a familiar library on campus. It amazes me how this place can conjure vivid memories of diligent studying, not-so-diligent procrastinating, and the stress of meeting the next deadline. Somehow these walls around me color my emotions with nostalgia, and if I were a better meditator, I might be content to watch these feelings pass through me without asking why. Luckily, I’m not.
What gives places the power to show the mind a glimpse of the past? Events associated with emotional intensity—from elation to despair—are especially easy to remember. For example, do you remember where you had your first romantic kiss? Oppositely, how about where you were on September 11th, 2001? The relationship between place and mind is extremely complex to say the least, and it has been a subject of scientific research in fields like environmental psychology and neurobiology for decades. I propose that a good place for anyone to start looking for answers is the physical structure of the brain itself—specifically, two structures called the hippocampus and amygdala.
Named for its apparent resemblance to a seahorse, the hippocampus has become known as a neural hub for declarative memory, or memory you can reconstruct at will (Phelps, 2004). The hippocampus has also been found to incorporate spatial memory into its function; Kneirim, Kudrimoti, and McNaughton (1995) report that certain hippocampal neurons deemed “place cells” selectively activate when a mouse occupies a certain position relative to its environment. These “place cells” are sensitive to landmarks that mice (and humans) learn after occupying a space for enough time.
The amygdala exists just in front of the hippocampus and is named for its almond-like shape. This structure is commonly associated with the experience of emotions, especially fear. Activation of the amygdala can trigger learned responses to emotional stimuli independent of the hippocampus, and it also possesses the ability to modulate hippocampal activity (Phelps, 2004). There are reciprocal connections between the amygdala and hippocampus, and—risking scientific reductionism, here—this begins to explain why place and emotions are so closely related.
Ultimately, the neural structures involved in memory contribute to what environmental psychologists call, “Sense of place.” According to Lengen and Kistemann (2012), this refers to, “Emotional bonds with places… that are actively and continuously constructed and reconstructed within individual minds, with awareness of the cultural, historical, and spatial context.” As you might have read in our previous posts to the blog, a sense of place is vital to Richard Hugo’s writing style (for example, travel to Hugo’s “Triggering Town” in this post by Cali Kopczick). Additionally, this whole documentary project is about a place that the members of Team Demo Hugo love, and how we deal with its future transformation. Lengen and Kistemann (2012) also posit that one’s sense of place can affect health and well-being, and they cite evidence that a change of scenery can sometimes be therapeutic. Richard Hugo might agree with this sentiment (see his poem, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg). And I am grateful to be among this collective of Seattle superstars as we light up our hippocampi and amygdalae in the making of Where the House Was.
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