Memory, Trauma, and “Re-memberment”
Ryan Maher, MA, LCPC, CYT
Memory influences how we experience much of life and plays an important role in therapy. Neuroscience and psychology recognize two types of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is memory that can be consciously recalled and includes factual information, concepts, and previously lived experiences. For instance, what did you eat for dinner last night? Where did you go to high school? What is the capital of the state you live in? Who was your favorite teacher? These are all forms of explicit memory. On the other hand, implicit memory is memory that is not consciously retrievable. This entails procedural memory, which helps us to navigate the world without having to refer back to specific events. For instance: walking, riding a bike, and tying your shoe are all connected to implicit memory. We are able to accomplish these actions without having to explicitly remember how to do them. In addition to helping complete important daily functions, implicit memory also holds memories that are unconscious. These unconscious memories are sometimes connected to traumatic experiences. Storing traumatic experiences in the implicit memory serves an important purpose insofar as it protects from becoming overwhelmed and unable to live life in the aftermath of a trauma. However, what initially serves as a protective mechanism frequently becomes a pattern of thinking or way of behaving that is ultimately harmful and prevents the ability to live life in a connected and present way.
While trauma-related implicit memories are not available to our conscious minds we still carry them with us, sometimes long after the trauma has occurred. These memories are stored in our limbic system, our unconscious, and our bodies. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score (2015), and Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger (1997), provide excellent explorations into the ways our physical bodies contain and hold traumatic experiences. Although implicit memories are not “remembered” in the way we usually think of remembering, they affect us in concrete ways. These implicit memories can influence the way we move, hold, associate, and feel (or not feel) our bodies. They may also impact our thoughts, internal dialogues, fantasies, behaviors, and self-concept. Furthermore, implicit memories can affect sleep, eating patterns, and how we cope with stress. In the healing of trauma it is therefore necessary to access these implicit memories in a supportive and compassionate way that honors and addresses the psychological, emotional, and physical dimensions of trauma.
Remembering implicit memories related to overwhelming (traumatic) experiences in an embodied and connected way, diminishes their power. The fractured and dissociated parts of the self are integrated and brought into a safe and tolerable relationship with consciousness. As implicit memories become explicit memories and are felt, expressed, and processed, the ability to be present and live life fully expands. In many respects, the journey of remembering is a process of “re-memberment”, which involves joining or re-assembling different dissociated parts to create an integrated wholeness.
Memory, both explicit and implicit, is an inherent part of who we are. It is also an indispensible component in healing from trauma and in discovering who we genuinely are, with or without a traumatic past. Furthermore, memory plays an important function in how we might imagine ourselves to be and who we ultimately can become.