Repressed Memories Of Childhood Trauma And State-Dependent Learning

 

According to MEMORY REPRESSION THEORY, (a theory that originates from the work of Sigmund Freud and more likely, today, to be described as memories made inaccessible due to DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA) some memories of childhood trauma in some individuals are not accessible to full conscious recall. In the short-term, this serves to protect the person from recollecting events which may be unbearably emotionally and psychologically distressing.

However, according to the theory, over the longer term, such repression of memories is likely to become harmful to the individual. This is because without conscious access to his/her traumatic memories s/he is unable to process them fully. This inability to process the traumatic memories can, in turn, lead to a variety of serious psychological problems and a much-lowered probability of recovering from conditions associated with childhood trauma such as complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

It has been hypothesized that one reason traumatic childhood memories remain out of reach of conscious awareness is due to a phenomenon that is known as STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING.

WHAT IS STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING?

State-dependent learning is a phenomenon whereby, individuals are better able to recall information if they are in the same mental and physical state as they were when they originally encoded the information into memory.

EXAMPLE OF STATE-DEPENDENT LEARNING:

  • Information encoded when under the influence of alcohol may be better recalled when again under alcohol’s influence compared to when completely sober.
  • Information encoded in a particular physical location may be better recalled when again in the same physical location.

FEAR-RELATED MEMORIES:

A study conducted at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that FEAR-RELATED MEMORIES such as memories of childhood trauma which the brain attempted to encode and store whilst one was in a terrified state may well also be subject to the influence of state-dependent learning. In other words, it is theorized that traumatic, frightening memories from childhood may only be accessible to conscious awareness when one is in a similar mental state.

Researchers involved in the study pointed out that therapy is less likely to be successful if the very events (i.e. childhood trauma/s) that underlie the individual’s mental health condition cannot be recalled by the individual involved.

TRAUMATIC STRESS CHEMICALLY ALTERS BRAIN LEADING TO FEAR-RELATED MEMORIES BEING ABNORMALLY ENCODED RENDERING THEM INACCESSIBLE TO NORMAL CONSCIOUS RECALL:

Based upon experiments on mice, the researchers hypothesized that traumatic stress causes fear-related memories to be stored in an abnormal fashion which, in turn, makes them inaccessible to normal conscious recall. Specifically, they theorized that when under traumatic stress, some individuals activate the brain’s EXTRA-SYNAPTIC GABA SYSTEM and it is this system that causes the fear-related memories to be, as it were, locked away from ordinary conscious access.

 

In light of the above, it is possible that, in the future, drugs that change the chemical state of the brain may prove of therapeutic value in circumstances whereby uncovering hidden memories would be of benefit to a individuals’ recovery from conditions related to childhood trauma.

REFERENCE:

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “How traumatic memories hide in the brain, and how to retrieve them: Special brain mechanism discovered to store stress-related, unconscious memories.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 August 2015.

 

David Hosier BSC Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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