As humans, we have a natural, psychological defence 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 posttraumatic 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 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 of 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 defence 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 the 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 :
b) encoding (storage)
c) rehearsal (this allows the information to pass into long-term memory)
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 (e.g. 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
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.
Very Early Life Trauma can ‘Burn’ Memories into The Brain That Are Not Consciously Recollectable Early
MEMORY AND EARLY LIFE
Most of us have no conscious memory of our experiences that occur before the age of two or older (I myself remember nothing that happened to me before the age of five and only very little indeed of what happened to me before the age of about eleven apart from highly emotionally charged, negative events. There is also a complete gap in my memory for anything at all that happened to me between the ages of six and eight – my parents divorced when I had just turned nine but whether or not this is relevant I don’t know; however, I suspect it is for reasons I may write more about at some stage in the future.
‘BURNT IN’ MEMORIES
Anyway, as I said, whilst nearly everyone remembers nothing before the age of two, this does NOT mean that these very early life experiences fail to be stored in the brain. We know this due to some extraordinary research, some of which I outline below. This research provides irrefutable evidence that traumatic events that we experience before the age of two, consciously irretrievable, are, figuratively speaking, ‘BURNT INTO (Terr) the brain’ in the form of unconscious memories.
JUST BECAUSE SOME EXPERIENCES STORED IN THE BRAIN AREN’T CONSCIOUSLY RETRIEVABLE DOES NOT MEAN THESE EXPERIENCES DON’T AFFECT OUR FUTURE LIVES:
Because of these burnt in, unconscious memories we now also know that what used to be believed, i.e. as because nothing before the age of two is remembered, these have no effect upon the person’s life, are categorically mistaken.
This is illustrated by research conducted by Terr (university of California Medical Center, San Francisco. Terr’s study involved children aged 5 years-old who had experienced significant trauma (for which there existed evidence including eye witness statements and police reports) before they were 34 months old (i.e. at an age before verbal memory had developed)
Despite this, it was apparent that these children HAD retained unconscious memories of their trauma as they were reflected in their play behaviour, sometimes in their entirety.
Other research, conducted by Clifton and Myers (University of Massachusetts) has found that children exposed to mildly frightening stimuli at the age of 6 months show behavioural signs as having unconsciously remembered the experience through behavioural responses to similar stimuli at the age of 30 months.
I was confidently informed, as a child that, I would not have been affected by the trauma I was exposed to in my household when I was a baby and infant because I had no memory of it. The above research adds further evidence that such an assertion is misplaced.
STATE DEPENDENT LEARNING AND MEMORY
State-dependent learning may also contribute to whether or not memories are accessible. State-dependent learning refers to the theory that memories formed when one is in a particular emotional state are most successfully retrieved when one re-experiences a similar emotional state in the future.
In relation to this, a study conducted by Radulovic et al. has found why fear/stress-related memories in mice become inaccessible to conscious awareness. It is, according to the research, due to chemical changes in the brain which occur in a state of fear/stress (involving the production of extra-synaptic GABA receptors) that facilitate the encoding of stress/fear-related memories but also cause these memories to be stored in the brain where they are consciously inaccessible.
It follows then, according to the theory, that the only way of freeing these ‘hidden’ memories from their ‘place of inaccessibility’ is to return the brain to a similar chemical state to that which it was in at the time of encoding – i.e. memories laid down when extra-synaptic GABA receptors are activated can only be retrieved when these same receptors are re-activated.
In order to illustrate this idea, Radulovic et al. carried out an experiment in which mice were administered a drug that stimulates extra-synaptic GABA receptors so that the mice’s brains entered the associated chemical state. Once this particular brain state had been induced in the mice, they were placed into a box and given brief, mild, electric shocks. The next day they were returned to the box but did not display any fear. This indicated that they were unable to recall their painful experiences in the box (i.e. receiving electric shocks) from the previous day.
When the mice were then administered with the same drug that had been administered to them on the previous day, thus recreating the chemically induced state of mind that they had been in when they received the electric shocks, and placed back in the box, they displayed obvious fear (by freezing) demonstrating that now, with the original brain state replicated, their memories of receiving the electric shocks the day before became memorable.
Extrapolating from this experiment, the researchers concluded that some individuals, when under sufficient stress, store traumatic memories in a brain state affected by activation of the extra-synaptic GABA system which renders the traumatic memories, for the most part at least, inaccessible
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.