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Blame It On the Amygdala

By Tim Hayes

Personal and professional obligations led me to drive past my high school this weekend – a welcome detour, since one week ago I attended my 40th Class Reunion from that very institution, and had an absolute blast.

In one more piece of evidence that my brain has a mind of its own, I completely, totally, unabashedly, and fully loved high school.  All four phases.  From the clumsy stumbling freshman experience, through the tough teachers (mostly in math and science for me), and right up to the numerous leadership roles assumed as a senior, high school represented four fabulous years.

Now, four decades later, about 80 members of the Class of ’78 gathered again to compare notes, stories, hairlines, waistlines, and memories.  What a night.

As one of the event’s coordinators, I had a front row seat as the first classmates arrived.  More than once, a person would come barreling over to me, grab my hand or give me a big hug, crying “Tim!  How great to see you again!”  And I’d respond in kind, while straining like mad to read his or her nametag, because I had NO IDEA who they were.  The same happened to me in reverse, as I welcomed friends from so long ago, whose eyes said, “Who is this guy?” about me.

But after some conversation, the addition of other classmates, and the ongoing after-effects of the cash bar, it didn’t take long for all of us to slide right back into high school together.  And the stories!  Stuff I’d forgotten that made us laugh all over again at what we had gotten away with in our sporadically misspent youth.

I told one friend, whom I hadn’t seen since graduation, that she had been responsible for the most shocking, frightening, funny, and adrenaline-spiking moment I experienced in my four years of high school.  She looked surprised, so I explained.

One day after school, a bunch of us were in the classroom of the English teacher who advised an activity in which we participated.  The teacher was out of the room, when my friend – wearing bib overalls at the time, a fashion choice back then – stood up in front of the group, reached into the front pocket of her overalls, pulled out a joint, and said, “Anybody want to join me?”

Me, being the total square I still am today, instantly freaked out, running to close the classroom door, making her put that thing back in her pocket, and swearing everybody to secrecy.

As I shared this recollection with our group at the reunion, to gales of laughter, my friend said, “You know, I’m not surprised I had a joint on me.  But I am surprised I was wearing bib overalls!”

All night, during dinner and well into the evening hours, friends reconnected and reignited their fondness for each other and the lives we lived together in the ‘70s as unalloyed, unapologetic city punks.  I experienced a bonus benefit, as well.  About 10 other classmates at the reunion had also attended our little parochial grade school together for eight years before heading to high school, so we had a mini-reunion within the larger one.  What an unexpected and wonderful treat.

Naturally, not every moment of high school was sunshine, rainbows, smiles, and good times.  But isn’t it enough knowing that the difficulties and challenges and heartbreaks all helped make us stronger, more resilient, better able to move into adulthood?  I do, and see no need to dwell on those moments.

Plus, there may be a scientifically provable reason why we naturally drift toward the positive, happy memories that flowed so freely at our reunion.  It seems as though the things we remember get better with age, according to research* published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2016.  The study showed that the amygdala – which plays a significant role in emotional behavior in older adults’ brains – was activated equally by positive and negative images, whereas younger adults’ brains were activated more by negative images.

So people with some miles on the odometer of life appreciate and value the good times more than their younger counterparts.  That came through loud and clear a week ago, that’s for sure.

Hey, you can blame it on the amygdala if you want.  All I know is that, after seeing so many friends from my teenage years again, I could not have been happier. Just like we said 40 years ago: ’78 is Great!

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200306/remembering-just-the-good-times