Childhood Trauma And Memory – Why Some Remember, Others Forget

childhood_trauma_questionnaire

As humans we have a natural, psychological defense mechanism which allows us to disconnect our conscious awareness from experiences which would be too emotionally disturbing for us to allow them access to our consciousness. This process is termed ‘DISSOCIATION‘ by psychologists.

The process of dissociation, in relation to the experience of severe trauma, can happen:

– whilst the traumatic event is occurring

– for a finite time after the traumatic experience has occurred (i.e. when traumatic events are only recalled after a delay, possibly of years)

– indefinitely after the traumatic event (i.e. the memory of the traumatic experience never gains access to our conscious mind)

Indeed, for those individuals who develop post traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of the trauma they experienced, MEMORY ABNORMALITIES, related to the traumatic event/s, is very frequently one of the major symptoms. These abnormalities of memory can be broken down into two main categories :

1) HYPERNESIA (the opposite of amnesia) :

This refers to a state in which the memory of the trauma keeps encroaching upon consciousness to the point that the sufferer feels as if s/he is obsessed with the trauma s/he experienced.

The memories are intrusive, unwanted, overwhelming, distressing and feel beyond the control of the person who is experiencing them. As well as intrusive thoughts, there are also frequently flashbacks and nightmares relating to the trauma.

Sometimes, too, the traumatized individual will feel as if s/he he is vividly re-living the traumatic experience in the immediate present.

2) AMNESIA :

This refers to forgetting/repressing the traumatic experience, or, at least, important aspects of the trauma. The term that psychologists use to describe this is : ‘DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA.’

WHY DO SOME REMEMBER TRAUMA AND OTHERS FORGET?

There are a number of factors that influence whether traumatic memories are remembered or not; these are :

1) THE TYPE OF TRAUMA

– traumatic experiences caused by nature (e.g. earthquake, flood etc) are more likely to be remembered than traumatic experiences inflicted by another person (e.g. rape)

2) HOW FREQUENTLY THE TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE OCCURRED

– single traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than a series traumatic events which occurred over an extended time period

3) AGE OF THE INDIVIDUAL WHO EXPERIENCED THE TRAUMA

– adults are more likely to recall traumatic events than are young children

4) WHETHER OTHERS VALIDATE THE PERSON’S TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE OR DENY IT

– when someone suffers trauma and others validate how painful the experience must have been and provide emotional support, s/he is more likely to remember it than a person who finds that others deny and invalidate his/her traumatic experiences. Those who are encouraged to keep the traumatic experience a secret are also less likely to remember it.

5) DOUBLE BIND

– when those who are supposed to care for an individual instead harm and abuse/traumatize him/her (placing the individual in what psychologists term a DOUBLE BIND) it can be impossible for the individual to process and store these two highly conflicting facts in consciousness. The individual may, therefore, block from consciousness the fact that s/he is being abused – this is, essentially, an unconscious defense mechanism to protect the individual’s consciousness from overwhelming anguish.

EXPLICIT VERSUS IMPLICIT MEMORY

Memories can be EXPLICIT or IMPLICIT. Explicit memories refer to the recall of facts and events. Implicit memories refer to knowledge we have stored about how to do things (sometimes referred to as ‘behavioural knowledge’) but which we cannot remember learning. An obvious example is speech – we know how to talk, but can’t remember learning how to do so.

THE FOUR STAGES OF MEMORY

As well as dividing memories into explicit and implicit, we can also break down the memory process into 4 stages; these are :

a) input

b) encoding (storage)

c) rehearsal (this allows the information pass into long-term memory)

d) retrieval

Research suggests that traumatic memories ARE ENCODED (STAGE ‘b’ ABOVE) DIFFERENTLY FROM NORMAL MEMORIES. It seems that they are stored in the LIMBIC SYSTEM WHICH PROCESSES EMOTIONS/FEELINGS BUT NOT SPEECH/LANGUAGE.

It is therefore theorized that traumatized individuals often end up with IMPLICIT MEMORIES which causes them to FEEL THE EMOTIONS THE ORIGINAL TRAUMA CAUSED (eg. intense fear, anger) but have NO EXPLICIT MEMORY OF THE EVENT NOR THE LANGUAGE WITH WHICH TO EXPRESS HOW THEY HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY IT.

This can lead to ‘ACTING OUT’ (i.e. expressing feelings through behaviour rather than through language -e.g. smashing a plate to express anger) and constant strong emotions like terror, depression and hostility without the person experiencing them understanding, or being aware of, their true origin.

In other words, those who have

a) experienced early life trauma

may

b) constantly feel bad and behave self-destructively

without awareness that the two (i.e. ‘a’ and ‘b’ above) are connected, due to having forgotten/repressed/dissociated from the original trauma that is the source of such feelings and behaviour.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

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