I've noticed this lately because, since my house was robbed, I have a physical sensation of fear when I enter the back bedroom after coming home from work. I go there first to make sure the drawers are in their proper places and all is as it should be. The sensation, obviously, comes from memory although, rationally, there is no psychological reason that it should persist. Yet persist it does and in other species as well.
I had a cat, Baba Ganoush, who lived to the ripe old age of 21. In her kitten-hood she had a traumatic experience with an orange. I was peeling it and it squirted her in the eye. For the remainder of her long life, whenever she saw or smelled an orange being opened, she would begin to squint, even if she was across the room. Her body held the memory of that experience until she died.
My partner, D., was attacked in her apartment nearly 40 years ago when she was a college student. The other day as she was still sleeping and, standing beside the bed, I touched her arm to wake her. From her sleep, she screamed and pulled away from my hand. Her body remembered that night, so very long ago, when she woke to find a stranger on top of her. It is similar to the post-traumatic stress that soldiers experience after they have come home from war, a terrible and stunning reminder of the way negative experience shapes and changes us.
Do we ever really escape our history? Yes, we can move on, achieve, accomplish and evolve. But in the convoluted pathways of our brains we carry all the danger signals that we have ever received, along with the positive and neutral feelings, smells and sensations of memory. Memory traces that can return when these areas of our brains are re-stimulated by circumstance or even drugs.
Whenever I have painful dental work done, I enjoy escaping into the fog of nitrous-oxide gas. Often, it takes me back to specific situations in my youth. In one nitrous episode, I was playing my guitar, something I hadn't attempted for over fifteen years. It inspired my to go under my bed and retrieve the instrument and see what I could do with it. Unfortunately, my guitar playing turned out to be even worse than I'd remembered. My memory of notes, chords and songs left a lot to be desired. I'm sure my brain and body are aware that my life is not dependent on musical skill or expertise. And, for that, I am eternally grateful.