Trauma-a Brief Overview on its Effect on Memory

I write and talk about trauma a lot. This writing gives a brief overview of trauma and how it relates to memory.

There are 2 sides of the brain, the left side and the right side. The two are connected by a ‘carrier’, which is known as the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum carries information back and forth between the right side, which holds memories that include emotions and feelings, to the left side, which has language and pragmatic, logical thoughts.

What Is The Corpus Callosum?

When trauma occurs, sometimes those memories remain in the emotional part of the brain. In order to have language for the trauma, the corpus callosum must carry the memories into the left side. One of the things that is helpful about talk therapy is that it helps those who have experienced trauma put words to the emotional part of trauma. The words help organize the memories into a logical order, which is also a duty of the left side of the brain.

Some traumatic memories happen before there is language. An example of this is a baby who experiences a lot of medical issues. Those memories remain as feelings without words, because they happen before language is developed.

For traumatic events that happen after language is developed, they rely on the carrier to transfer the memories between the two sides of the brain. One scientific effect of trauma is that the corpus callosum is actually changed with trauma. It doesn’t transfer memories as well, thus makes it more difficult for there to be both words and logical order to emotional memories. When trauma has occurred, the corpus callosum is smaller, and doesn’t do as good of a job of carrying information between the two sides.

Our ability to remember specific words does not work very well. We generally remember the ‘gist’ of what was said (the meaning), but not the exact words. So we know meaning without precise recollection of the words that were said. Most people can attest to times, possibly when they were engaged in an argument, that they quoted something someone said, only to be told ‘that’s not exactly what I said’. We also have perceptions of what we hear, so our memories of someone else’s meaning may not be identical to their intention. Since we are remembering meaning instead of exact wording, that makes sense.

How does this apply to trauma? We are remembering our feelings and emotions related to traumatic events. Our words for those emotions may change based on our ability to put things into words, particularly considering that we all have different verbal abilities.

Trauma relates to the most recent hearing regarding the Supreme Court nominee. There is an argument that a traumatic event did not happen because it was not reported, and this does not follow along with what is known to be true of trauma, traumatic memories, and how those who have experienced trauma respond to their trauma.

Traumatic events happen all of the time that are not reported or talked about. To say that someone who didn’t experience a traumatic event that evening, who is not remembering the specific events of the same evening, is evidence that an event did not happen does not ring true. A non-traumatic event is not remembered in the same way or place in the brain as a traumatic event. It seems impossible to try to come to a conclusion about whether a traumatic event occurred based on someone else’s memory of the same evening, particularly when that person did not experience a traumatic event during that event.

There is some pretty interesting evidence out there about trauma and its effects on the brain. I encourage all of us to utilize this opportunity to learn more about trauma and try to be more understanding of those who have experienced it.

A Licensed Professional Counselor who writes about family, trauma and daily observations. website:

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