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My Hippocampus Is Doomed

May 18, 2011

I search for memory every day. I mean, I search search, in my brain, but I also search online and in my books/mags/journals. Searching has become as habitual as checking Facebook. Most days, nothing really new pops up. Instead, I find variations on the same memory themes: keeping it, losing it, using it, suppressing it, playing with it, fearing it, loathing it, loving it.

This, though? Wow. Weird science. The hippocampus, that lovely little parcel of brain that’s essential to memory, tends to deteriorate as we age. But a team of Duke researchers just published a study linking greater deterioration of the hippocampus to religion. Specifically, the Dukees found that when other factors were accounted for (can’t blame this one of overall brain size, for example), subjects who identified as Catholic, born again Christian, or atheist, experienced more deterioration of the hippocampus than did Protestants of the majority. (Let’s call them Preponderant Protestants.) Furthermore, people who say they’ve gone through a transformative religious experience also register more deterioration than steadfast, even-keeled Preponderant Protestants.

The Duke study suggests that stress—the universal enemy of all things good in this world—is a possible player in this bizarre game. Members of minority religions (and no, the Duke study didn’t include any groups other than Catholic, Protestant, born again, and atheist) could be chronically stressed. People who have undergone transformative spiritual journeys have floundered in the murky waters of doubt and therefore could have been, or could still be, seriously stressed out.

I was raised Catholic. As I’ve said before, my first memory is of the evening my family and I learned that my father had been killed in a crash. A priest stood among the bearers of bad news that night. The first word I remember is, “No.” The first full sentence I remember hearing is, “God loved Daddy so much he decided to take him early.” My first remembered experience is a transformative, spirit-crushing, doubt-raising tragedy. At six, I stepped uneasily into those murky waters of doubt, and by now I’ve built a houseboat.

All of this is to say, is my hippocampus doomed? Does this study, like so many before, like so many bound to come, help explain my loss of childhood memory? Or is my hippocampus already so deteriorated that I’m foolishly willing to follow any study into the false comfort of answers? Is that a form of religious belief in itself? If so, am I just hastening the deterioration? I can’t join the Preponderant Protestants now. It would require another transformative spiritual journey, and that would only condemn my hippocampus to ever-faster shrinkage. Ahh! What do I do for my hippocampus?

I know what my sisters and friends will say: WINE. (In a chalice.)

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One Comment
  1. So wait–if we’re born into the one of the not-so-good-for-the-brain faiths, is it better for our brains to eschew religious affiliation (still no good for the brain according to this study) or undergo a conversion (also not so good for the say the brain scientist)?

    And hells yea, pour yourself another glass (chalice). Or two.


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