(Part 1 of a series)
When I was a boy – fourth grade, perhaps – I knew about the female body. I didn’t know much, nor did I know why I was so interested, but I knew I was interested. Perhaps it represents what some have seen when they describe the female body as “a work of art”, beautiful in its curves and tender in its softness. Or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that by fourth grade I was casually and discreetly stealing glances in the lingerie section of the JCPenney catalog that came in the mail.
Such imagery has a certain allure to it. When something is consistently hidden from view it becomes tantalizing to the young mind. Why is this always covered? What does it look like? Why am I prevented from seeing it? Such questions foster a desire to see what is being concealed, and as more time passes the desire grows.
A young boy doesn’t typically have the resources to go beyond this point. The underwear section at the store, the underwear store at the mall, and other advertisements are usually the only static images that are accessible – and even these are not readily accessible but only available by opportunity. Television offers glances as well, depending on the programming, but these are even more tantalizing than images because they are there one second and gone the next as the show continues. What remains is an image in the mind’s eye.
The images in the mind’s eye, however, are powerful remnants. A printed image remains “outside”, where the brain need not load it into working memory because it’s already accessible via sensory input. The images in the mind’s eye represent objects in memory – short-term memory at first – where the mind can dwell on its appearance. This dwelling may not last long, maybe only a few seconds or minutes, but during that time the mind can manipulate the image in a way that a printed image cannot be manipulated. It can be shifted, re-positioned, and even modified in appearance. Clothing can be removed and faces can be replaced.
If the mental image is dwelled upon for long enough, it can even be transferred to long-term memory for later retrieval. The more frequently this retrieval occurs, the more lasting the memory becomes. It goes from being “something I once saw” to “something I can now see whenever I want.” It becomes ingrained in the person’s mind as a permanent object. It becomes part of the person.
People are social creatures. While there are small numbers of exceptions, and the degree may vary from person to person, typically people like being around other people. It is fundamental to who we are as humans and may have at its roots an origin in our spiritual nature as well as our evolutionary history, where survival was better ensured by sticking together rather than striking out on one’s own. In every country, and every survivable habitat, people have grouped together. Even beyond that, people frequently group together based on some shared characteristic(s). It may be shared appearances, shared occupations, shared experiences, shared values, shared interests, and any other of a number of common elements or environmental factors that encourage us to seek the company of others. The point is that a force within us compels us to find more of that “something”. The old adage is that “misery loves company”, but it is also true that joy loves company. Struggle loves company. Wit loves company. Addiction loves company.
One could wager that every human emotion and experience loves company. A golfer looks for others with whom they can share a round on the course, and an intellectual looks for others with whom they can trade barbs or discuss issues in great depth. Those who celebrate look for others to celebrate with, and those who mourn look for others to mourn with.
This indicates that the interaction between emotional experience and psychological need is a strong one. We look to others who share what we are experiencing for relationship purposes, but also so we can share their experience. Adrenaline “junkies” find excitement in experiencing high-risk situations with others, but also find excitement in hearing about high-risk situations others have experienced. When a person has an interest, a value, or an experience, they seek others with those same characteristics so they can share in what the other brings to the table. This is to say that all characteristics of our humanity – born and resident in the mind – love company.
The long-term memory represents a storehouse of knowledge attained and developed by a person during the course of his or her life. It is not just a repository of facts but a system of connections, insights, and truths that one’s mind has deemed important enough to retain for later use and which are used frequently enough to have persisted. It is this frequent use that reinforces the permanence of a memory. A student may take three years of a foreign language in high school, but if several years subsequently pass with no use and no need to use it then the memory will fade. It will be deemed unimportant. But if the student simply talks to himself or herself in that language, then frequent retrieval of the memories aids in cementing those memories in a lasting way. In this way, the language transitions from being a lesson learned in the past to being a characteristic of that person.
Emotional experiences have a similar pattern. If a person harbors a grudge against someone else but quickly forgives it and reconciles the relationship, then the memory of the origin of that grudge fades easily with time. This is one reason why being able to forgive is healthy. But if that person dwells on the memory, frequently remembering the instance where they were wronged by their friend, then the grudge has the ability to permanently fracture the relationship and permanently etch itself onto the mind of the bearer. Such memories are very difficult to forget, and that person might also find it very difficult (if not impossible) to forgive the wrong. The grudge has become part of that person.
An image in the mind can likewise persist if it is frequently retrieved. A book with vivid descriptions forms an image in the mind’s eye that, if striking enough, can persist for years afterward. Similarly, the more the mind dwells on an image, playing with it in different ways, the stronger the memory of that image will be.
Persistent long-term memories of images that represent emotional feelings, adrenaline rushes, powerful experiences, or strong desires thus have the power to shape a person. They can impact personality and behavior, in some cases triggering an impulse to seek more. That impulse acts as an internal motivation to satisfy one’s desire for more of what has already sculpted the psyche. The memories love company, and demand more memories of a similar nature. Having planted the seed in the fertile soil of a young, impressionable, developing brain, pornography grows and sends out deep roots.
But even flowers that look beautiful on the outside can harbor foul secrets. The titan arum, a large flower native to Sumatra, has vivid colors and an enormous flower. But once it opens, a rancid odor is emitted that leads many to call it the “corpse flower.” Lurid, sexual imagery of the naked human body – pornography – is such a flower, but where the stench isn’t noticed until some time has passed. And from its putrid blossom arises a call: come find me.