After a hard loss in our second-to-last game, one of my Girls’ Varsity Basketball teammates burst out, “Guys, we have to win on Saturday. These are the last three days of our season!”
I echoed her sentiment. “And my last three days of basketball at BB&N!”
Then I froze. I hadn’t thought about the gravity of what I said until it came out of my mouth, and suddenly I realized: this was my first real “last” at BB&N. My last practice and last game with my beloved basketball team. Things were starting to end; the light was coming into view at the end of the tunnel. Choose whatever metaphor for finality suits you, but it was true.
As I gazed at the sweaty blue uniforms, overstuffed backpacks, and crumpled-up Chewy bar wrappers on the benches around me, my stomach turned at the thought not of ending, but of never returning. I was left speechless by the fact that I’ll never again get to experience the bus rides and shooting drills and heartwarming impromptu captain speeches that have marked my BB&N winters. I felt as if I were peering into a void, and driving home, I realized the void had a name: sadness.
And it’s not just me who sees sadness as a void. Sadness remains a slippery, elusive emotion for neuroscientists to explain. We know much about happiness; less-than-adequate amounts of the chemical serotonin strongly correlate with depression. But does that say anything about sadness? Well, as I and many psychiatrists see it, sadness is not the passive lack of happiness—that’s more along the lines of depression. Sadness exists on an entirely different vector about which scientists just don’t know that much.
What we don’t often emphasize is that sadness is very much a fact of our everyday lives. Psychologist Paul Ekman, upon whose research Pixar movie Inside Out drew, described it as one of the six basic emotions (along with anger, surprise, happiness, fear, and disgust). According to Ekman, from one or more of these six emotions stems every feeling we can possibly experience. Say what you will about that, but what Ekman made clear is that sadness is far from wrong. It’s a fundamental, universal emotion that humans have adapted to feel because it helps guide us through our lives. We should never be ashamed of feeling sad.
So sadness is an active emotion, an integral part of the course of our lives. However, we don’t know what causes it. We haven’t yet found a sadness chemical, like in the case of happiness and serotonin, nor have we mapped the exact circuit our neurons take that results in our feeling sad. But fortunately, scientists have started to figure out which parts of the brain are involved in sadness, and some have even taken stabs at tracking its network. Fancy brain-scanning technology has allowed us to see that when we’re sad, a particular part of the prefrontal cortex (the very front of the brain, which deals with personality and executive function) lights up. Poignantly, that area of the prefrontal cortex has also been associated with empathy, as a 1997 American Journal of Psychiatry study points out. That makes perfect sense to me, and almost certainly to you, too; when we feel sad, we’re much better equipped to feel and understand others’ sadness as well.
Last year, a team at University of California, San Francisco used these technologies and discoveries to publish a Cell study detailing a possible neural network for sadness. They found that moods like sadness and anxiety correlated with increased talk between the amygdala, which regulates emotional behavior, and the hippocampus, which works to consolidate memories. Basically, science has shown that when we feel sad, we dwell heavily on our emotional memories. Not too much of a surprise, but it’s a start.
I, myself, have been dwelling on my emotional memories a lot recently, since our basketball senior day only began the months of goodbyes marking the end of senior year. But if Inside Out-dramatized neuroscience has taught me anything, it’s that there’s something to learn from being sad. My turning stomach and trembling lips force me to think back and value all the tests and games and dramas and laughs and losses and wins and even the perfectly normal days that I’ve experienced during my time at BB&N.
It’s fitting that I write my last column on something we don’t know much about since so much of what comes next for me is unknown. But high school was once an unknown, too, and now it’s a memory I feel sad to leave in the past. So I say goodbye with the confidence that I’ll make it through; the knowledge that I’ve lived and learned quite a lot over my four years here; and the hope that I’ve left this school a place where we can celebrate all the emotions we get to feel.