Research suggests (for examples, see below) that traumatic memories are not stored in the normal way (this theory was initially proposed by the psychologist and philosopher Pierre Janet) but non-linguistically as feelings/emotions and sensations (e.g. images, sounds, smells). This means that they cannot be properly articulated nor integrated into the individual’s personal narrative (story) in a meaningful way. This is why people frequently find trauma extremely difficult to talk about.
Also, traumatic memories are stored in a fragmentary way (as opposed to in a way that allows them to form a coherent whole) and remain unmodified over time.
Another feature of traumatic memories, according to Pierre Janet, is that they frequently cannot be remembered at will but are state-dependent (i.e. can only be recalled – in the form of flashbacks, for example – when the individual is in a similar state of consciousness to the one s/he was experiencing at the time of the trauma).
So, as we can see from the above, traumatic memories are not processed in the normal way and it is this lack of normal information processing that lies at the core of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One main theory related to this is that they (i.e. the traumatic memories) are prevented from being properly processed by the EXTREME LEVEL OF AROUSAL the individual feels whilst experiencing the trauma.
Supporting Evidence :
Research (Kolk and Ducey) into flashbacks (a central feature of PTSD) using neuroimaging has revealed that when these flashbacks occur :
- there is increased activity in areas of the right hemisphere which are involved with emotional processing
- there is increased activity in the right visual cortex
These two findings support the theory that traumatic memories (in this case, flashbacks) are processed/stored in the form of emotions and sensations (in the case of the above research visual sensations).
Furthermore, Rauch et al. (1995) conducted research showing that individuals experiencing flashbacks simultaneously experienced a decrease in activity in the part of the brain, located in the left hemisphere, called Broca’s area (a brain region involved with language); this finding supports the theory that traumatic memories are not stored in linguistic form.
Implications For Therapy :
The above supports the notion that effective therapy for PTSD should involve the individual afflicted by it being helped by the therapist to properly process traumatic memories so that they may be safely integrated into the person’s personal narrative.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).