© The Trauma Initiative

Often people who have had overwhelming experiences—from a car accident to years of physical abuse—are given the advice to “move on.” Or, if the trauma occurred when young, they are told: “you were too young to remember.” While these statements are well-intentioned, they lack an understanding of how trauma works. People cannot just consciously decide to put these events in the past. Why not? Well, it all comes down to memory.

Dr. Janina Fisher (2014) tells us that memory is not located in one place in the brain. In fact, memory uses many areas or ‘departments’ of the brain. These include the frontal cortex (language and beliefs), hippocampus (filing cabinet), putamen (motor learning and function), amygdala (emotional processing), and caudate nucleus (feedback processor). Dr. Fisher makes a distinction between two basic types of memory: explicit and implicit. They are distinguished by the fact that one is voluntary and the other, state-specific (or state-dependent).

What is explicit memory?

Explicit (or declarative) memory is what we speak about as memory in everyday language. It’s the story of our life, the story we tell others and is constantly being constructed in the present moment between ourselves and others. This part of our memory is stored mainly in the left frontal cortex of the brain and is consciously accessible. Explicit memory can be broken down into two categories:

  • Semantic: Fund of knowledge based on language (vocabulary, facts, acquired learnings).
  • Episodic/Narrative/Autobiographical: Recall of family stories, holidays, events, milestones, etc.

Most of the time when we think about memory, we are referring to explicit memory. These memories are conscious and verbal, and we can choose to recall them or not.

What is implicit memory?

The implicit (or non-declarative) memory system has a more powerful influence on our behaviour than explicit memory. This is because it is ‘state-specific.’ We do not consciously choose to retrieve these memories; they are triggered by stimuli in our environment. Implicit memories are often nonverbal and based in the middle and lower regions of the brain (limbic system/brain stem) and is biased towards the right brain. These memories may present in different ways…

  • Emotional memory: Feelings and emotions (these are linked to declarative memories–that is, when we talk about a past experience, feelings and emotions will come to the surface).
  • Visceral memory: Internal body sensation (some might call this gut-feeling).
  • Perceptual memory: Olfactory (aroma/taste), visual, auditory, touch/tactile.
  • Muscle memory: Posture, tension, movement, skills (riding a bike, playing the piano).
  • Autonomic memory: Sympathetic and parasympathetic response.
  • Vestibular memory: Balance.
  • Procedural memory: Habit, automatic behaviour, conditioned responses, function.

Dr. Fisher offers further detail about procedural memory. In her view, this category of unconscious memory includes everything that is learned in preverbal years–that is, before five years of age. Procedural learning allows us to respond instinctively, automatically, and non-consciously, increasing our efficiency at the cost of a loss in reflective, purposeful action. Further, it can be more helpful than explicit memory in survival situations because it primes or conditions the body to respond to danger automatically.

These memories become imprinted in survivor’s brains. They are then triggered in situations that may only vaguely resemble the traumatic situation. While, at the same time, the body is remembering danger. Overcome by symptoms (panic, dread, despair, numbing, nausea, restlessness, hyper vigilance or disconnection), trauma survivors don’t know they are experiencing an implicit memory, rather, they feel there is something wrong with them.

When it comes to children impacted by trauma, procedural memory may present in the following ways:

  • ‘Default’ settings: tendencies to automatic self-blame, shame, anger, shutdown, dissociation. These were the safest strategies available at the time.
  • Social behaviour: difficulty making eye contact, asking for or accepting help, expressing feelings in words. These skills are normally taught in attuned relationships.
  • Behavioural responses: impulsive acting out, isolation and avoidance, inability to say no (or yes).
  • Emotional expression: emotional disconnection, cathartic expression, overwhelming intrusive emotions.
  • Interpersonal behaviour: getting too close too quickly and expecting too much from others (and vice-versa), becomes the caretaker, avoids closeness, dependency.

In addition, the autonomic nervous system learns to stay mobilized—whether it is hyper aroused (sympathetic nervous system) or hypo aroused (parasympathetic nervous system).

The challenge to be in the ‘here-and-now’

Because implicit memories are ‘state-specific’ (that is, we don’t know when they will come up–and if we did there is no ability to reflect or choose a course of action due to the frontal cortex being hijacked), there is ‘unconscious repetition’–trauma survivors tend not to learn from experience, rather they are driven to play out the traumatic experience over and over again. It is a challenge to be in the ‘here-and-now’.

Over 100 years ago Pierre Janet noted: “[Traumatized] patients … are [repeatedly] continuing the action, or rather the attempt at action, which began when the thing happened, and they exhaust themselves in these everlasting recommencements.”

Esteemed trauma researcher, Dan Siegel (2010), explains further in Mindsight: “When the images and sensations of experience remain in ‘implicit-only’ form… they remain in unassembled neural disarray, not tagged as representations derived from the past.[…]Such implicit-only memories continue to shape the subjective feeling we have of our here-and-now realities, the sense of who we are moment to moment…”

Let’s pause for a moment. If you have cared for a traumatized child, you will have experienced how a child can go into high activation (0-100) or shutdown over something that may seem trivial. Since triggered emotions and actions are not experienced as explicit memory, our children often lack any clear sense of “why” they are feeling or behaving in a certain way. Because trauma responses are automatically driven, they happen suddenly, often without warning, taking those around them by surprise.

These traumatic reminders, divorced from their original context, are misinterpreted as indicators that the child is still in danger. Although the child may be safe now, his body doesn’t know or believe it.

This raises the question of what needs to be attended to:

  • Should we seek to discover the original event?
  • Should we focus on the symptoms (regulating emotions, etc.)?
  • Should we concentrate on the relationship difficulties?

Dr. Fisher warns the danger of going back to talk about an event (or events) if there is recollection may agitate procedural learning. This is because implicit aspects of memory are always linked to the narrative (chronological) memory.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapist Dr. Pat Odgen (2015) agrees that while seeking ‘the story’ may provide crucial information about a child’s past life experience, caregivers need to address the ‘here-and-now’ experience of the traumatic past. That means, ‘in the moment’ trauma-related emotional reactions, thoughts images, body sensations and movement that emerge spontaneously must become the focal points of exploration and change. This involves:

  • Being curious about what is happening right here, right now. What procedurally learned patterns or habits of response keep projecting into the now? Watch for too much emotion or too little, movement or stillness, negative thoughts, tense or relaxed body, repetitive gestures, etc.
  • Engaging in activities that disrupt what has been unconsciously learned by drawing attention to them as interesting and meaningful, reframing them (by appreciating survival strategies or resources), or providing missed (corrective) experiences.
  • Manipulating working memory by taking thoughts and emotions that come up and updating them with new information.
  • Being intentional or mindful rather than resorting to automatic responses. This may include varying tone and energy to match the child’s or experimenting (asking the child to notice what happens if he sighs deeply, lengths his spine, places his hand on his heart, or uses the ‘stop and reach out’ gesture).

Recommended Reading:

D. Siegel (2010), Mindsight.
J. Fisher (2014), Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors.
P. Ogden & J. Fisher (2015), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.

© Felicia Stewart, 2019