Forgetting to remember a birthday is easy, remembering to forget is harder.

One of the enduring pleasures I have is that I can remember the smell of baking and cooking from my childhood. Pancakes, with their eggy smell dusted with cinnamon, on a dreary wintery day could instantly lift my mood. An estate agent friend of mine, confirmed she puts the either freshly brewed coffee or vanilla cake in the oven on a show day. Apparently, it connects the potential buyers to the property through their own memories. The Masterchef team use a food memories challenge in which they are trying to see the way the chefs connect with food. A good chef uses ingredients to transport them to their (hopefully to our) happy place. Often the recipes come from when they were apprentices, family recipes from mother; they choose them, because they are comfortable with them. Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial book, Outliers says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. This echoes Gary Player’s saying, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”. In the fitness industry, everybody is trending muscle memory theory, which states that once memorized by the brain, the muscles will become more fluid at following instructions. Driving your car is a perfect example. Thus far, it seems logical and simple.

Then came Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 90 Second Rule stating emotion only lasts in our bodies for about 90 seconds.

Jill’s research is on anger and other emotions. Anger to her, is not a bad emotion; there are no bad emotions, any emotion can trigger a neurochemical event through our interaction with the world. One such being adrenaline, we all know we need adrenaline to survive. When we need to fight or flee it, and other molecules flood the bloodstream. This is an advantage in our evolution. The problem is, when we evolved this mechanism, our brains could not tell the difference between fear and other more complex emotions. Many seemingly supernatural feats are the result of these chemicals. When the threat goes away, we should go back to normal. This is the way most animals are put together. The terrified Impala, wide eyed runs for its life, only to stop a few minutes later and graze as if without a care in the world. We are a little more complex. Why can’t we do that; or can we also remember vividly how it felt like to be fearful and fighting for our life? We remember falling in love and we can even communicate that love to others. Because we have evolved, we can not only remember, but also recreate the memory of emotion at will.

The 90-second rule, however, has become more complicated.

This physical reaction can be dissipated, UNLESS our cognitive brain (the thinking brain) kicks in, instead of the instinctive part that is not as involved in keeping memory. Now when fear kicks in, we can feel anger or stress. This can transition from a physiological response to the fight or flee situation into an ongoing re-stimulation – almost a mental video looping on your screen saver. When this happens, it starts connecting us to our anger and we remember past events and add them to the fire. Here is the rub, if we choose to love somebody, every time we think of them, we recreate that glow. The obverse is, if we remember being emotionally hurt or slighted, the throbbing in our temples starts and our blood boils almost at will. I wish I could have a flash of being irritated and then be done with it. This is not how it works, we start storing bad memories in patterns, which no longer serve us. In essence, we hurt ourselves with replaying in our mind the most hurtful emotions. Over time they are so etched into our brain, they overwhelm us. Modern life is stressful we have many daily triggers, the body cannot distinguish between a trigger and a memory that floods our system, it just reacts.

If we do not sit still and deal with the anger of the day rationally, look at why we got all riled up and put it to bed, these bad memories will added to tomorrows. In a never-ending bad dream, we will be doomed to be a self-fulfilling prophesy world of hurt. It took Jill a huge part of her adult life to prove what my Granny told me years ago, “When you lose your temper, count to 10”. Her maths and Jill’s may differ, but the essence is the same. I have a temper, which many can attest to, but I have recently tried to follow their advice. I refuse to sit around and count, and my maths is far worse than the Gran’s. I now think if it worth to be reduced to quivering blob of anger when the reason of my anger has moved on and is not giving me another thought.

The next step is to calculate whether I got my way quicker by being angry. Would the small victory against a clerk make my day better? In truth once, I have got my angry up, it takes ages to calm down. What I did is spend hours thinking of sharp retorts to arguments, I wish I had better things and I simmer. Like some historical enactors, I try to stem the fact that time used will never return. Meantime, I miss the hundreds of moments that I missed while I was having my tantrum. I have realized a greater tragedy, if I do not give my anger and resentments away and flip the trip switch; I lose the opportunity to bring in good healthy thoughts.

Blah de blah you may think, and maybe you are right, but this advice I was given. Unlike a cell phone contract or a large purchase on lay-buy, it is free and if you do not want to take it, don’t. We seldom get anything for free and very little for a sixpence. This takes a bit mental gear changing and 90 seconds to check the theory. Let go of the resentment you feel, free yourself from the injustice you cannot fix and walk away. For what it is worth try in the traffic or in a queue at the supermarket or when you are waiting for those long appointments with somebody who is running late. You are already cross. See if you are indeed the master of your destiny, smile to the teller, let somebody in before you or just say good day with genuine emotion maybe ask how his or her day is going. For me the change in my and their response breaks my anger cycle, my control is better and when I walk away, I do not have to be stuck in a bad mood mode for the whole day.


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.