Hidden Traces: Trauma and Memory
We forget what we want to remember we remember what we want to forget
Traumatic memories are not like ordinary memories. They are the glass shards cut off and cutting into the mind. The more you try to push them down, the more damage they cause.
The Great Library of the Mind
Think of the mind as a library: This vast spacous repository is a place to collect, store and loan out memories. The hippocampus — the two seahorse shaped tubes tucked under the cerebral cortex — works as librarian. Its job is to sift through new experiences that arrive on the front desk via the Thalamus – the sub-cerebral nugget acting as an attentive administrator of consciousness – and place them in the archives. Later the memory can be loaned out for future recollection. With the help of the amygdala (the volatile guardsman) and the basal ganglia (a learning and development coordinator) it’s a near flawless system. Occasionally however, the system goes wrong and memories go missing.
The mind-library has two ways of encoding, storing and retrieving long term memories: The declarative explicit system and the non-declarative implicit system. The explicit memory system is a diligent record keeper tasked with encoding memories on a linguistic level; that is to say by words. If we can talk about it, it becomes part of our history. The explicit memory system reaches its peak in adulthood, and these are the pages which form a continuous narrative of the storied self.
The non-declarative implicit memory system, on the other hand, is a procedural workman. It encodes memories on a somatosensory or iconic level; that is to say by bodily sensations or images. It emerged in infancy and responsible for all our habits, skills and learnt behaviours. The implicit memory system emerges in childhood, when language skills are lacking. If the declarative memory holds the mind-library’s logbook, the implicit memory is responsible for signposting
Trauma memories get lost between systems. They are the loose leaves fluttering across the floor, the hidden ink stains on the paper. When we are traumatised, it’s as a vandal has broke into the mind-library and ransacked the place.
How does the mind comprehend experiences which are by nature incomprehensible? Faced with unprecendented situations of danger or threat, the mind and body will first call out, then react with rage or panic, before finally collapsing in terror. When a frightening event and painful emotion are paired together, a memory is created.
Yet traumatic memories are not processed in the same way as ordinary memories. The declarative explicit memory system fails, and the experience isn’t logged properly. Instead the mind reverts to a more primitive method of recording data. The non-declarative implicit system encodes traumatic memories as pictures or as bodily sensations. There’s an arrow pointing to the suffering, but the story itself is missing.
In 1889 French psychologist Pierre Janet discovered dissociation: The mind’s ability to split itself into fragments in response to trauma. He believed it is memories which are most likely to become dissociated. However, even as fragments memories cause a lot of damage. The symptoms which emerge, out of unintegrated experience, can all be headed under the banner of post-traumatic stress.
Post Traumatic Stress
Trauma survivors are condemned to remember too much or too little. In one way, implict non-declerative memories of terror, pain and distress, resurface in the form of flashbacks. The unassimilated trauma fragment, having no place to go, intrudes onto consciousness robbing us of the present moment. Sometimes it’s via a cascade of images, other times it’s a triggered emotional outburst. Either way the unitergrated memory, becomes a glass shard, cutting into the mind and central nervous system.
In another way implicit non-declerative memories of terror, pain and distress, can be forgotten about. It is not unusual for survivors of trauma to suffer both long and short term amnesia. On a neurobiological level, strong emotions, stop the hippocampus and associated structures from working properly, meaning recall is impaired. On psychological level, we will repress memories to avoid re-experiencing terror or distress. What results is psychic numbing, emotional detachment and emptiness. Nevertheless while the mind does its best to forget, the body remembers. As well as hyperarousal and anxiety, survivors are also more likely to have physical health problems. It is thought the body sees bad memories as pathogens, and seeks to expel at all cost; the result is an full body inflammatory response. Whether it’s gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune disorders, or musculoskeletal pain, trauma is a splinter, which eventually leads to infection.
Unfortunately, survivors will be well aware of triggers. Someone who has experienced physical abuse, will flinch, and feel visceral anger or anxiety when they see a child getting smacked. Another whose been sexually assaulted as an adult, may find sex painful and intimacy near impossible. If we took an emotional battering by bullies at school, we’re be sensitive to criticism regardless of intent. In one way or another all survivors are prone to the reenact traumatic memories in the form of images, bodily sensations, or behaviours, because we have no other choice. Sometimes we are trying to unconciously gain mastery over and event by reliving it, other times, we act out what the explicit memory system can’t express. The key to recovery lies in unlocking trapped memories, and intergrating them into our story. First however it’s important to establish safety and distance from the averse experience to give body and mind a chance to heal.
Ever person gets knocked by life eventually. Trauma happens, when life doesn’t go according to the script. Reality smashes our mind and body into fragments. If these glass shards of memory become embedded, smooth them down, and turn them into gems. These jagged memories, can become treasure tokens to ornament our the missing pages of our life story. It may take years, but it’s always possible to start a new chapter.