The Invisible Memories That Shape Our Lives


From PsychAlive/Lisa Firestone, PhD: “We’ve all heard the famous quote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ While some version of this expression is often used when discussing broad cultural considerations like war, policy, and politics, it’s also one that very much applies to our own personal history. The less we’re able to bring our past to light, the more likely it is to shape our lives, unfortunately, often in ways we don’t desire.

In my mind, one of the most valuable aspects of therapy is that it offers people an opportunity to bring forth and make sense of various experiences from childhood. Some of our memories of what happened to us as children are fuzzy, while others are altogether unclear . . . [This is because] a child’s earliest memories are implicit, because the brain is not developed enough to encode explicit memory. Explicit memory is what we usually think of when we think of memory; it is a cognitive memory that we remember in our thinking brain. This is the type of recollection we experience as remembering.

Explicit memory doesn’t come online until around age 3, so much of what a child experiences before that is implicit. For instance, George Santayana, the philosopher to whom the above quote is attributed, probably had implicit memories from his first few years of life when his mother left him in Spain to start a new life in the United States. However, he may have explicit memories of when he was 8 years old and was abandoned by his father. Both memories likely had a heavy hand in shaping his life, but each would be experienced in different ways.

Implicit memory relies on structures in our brain that are fully developed before we are born. Because it’s an unconscious, bodily memory, when it gets triggered in the present, it does not seem like it’s coming from the past. Instead, it feels like it’s happening now. Thus, we react as if we are back in the original situation.

Unlike an explicit memory, an implicit memory does not involve the internal experience of recalling. It’s been described as ‘retention without remembering’ and as ‘nondeclarative, nonverbal memory.’ It can be behavioral, emotional, perceptual, or somatosensory, and is often felt in the body. A good example of implicit memory is hopping on a bike and instinctively remembering how to ride, whereas an explicit memory would be the recollection of someone teaching you to ride.

Trauma memories are often implicit, because trauma floods our brain with cortisol, the stress hormone, which shuts down the part of our brain that encodes memories and makes them explicit.

. . . Because of the nature of implicit memories, they’re often triggered subconsciously and cause reactions we don’t always understand. For example, seeing certain wallpaper can remind a person of a room in which they were abused as a child, leaving them feeling frightened without knowing why. Waking up after a breakup can trigger a loneliness a person felt waking up alone as a child. Hearing a baby cry on an airplane can cause a person to feel severe discomfort, triggering painful feelings from when they were a baby themselves.

These emotions that arise are actually implicit memories of a person’s own childhood experience. The intensity of the person’s reaction is based on the severity or degree of distress of the original situation. For instance, a person who felt abandoned as a child may experience a much more intense feeling of abandonment after a breakup. A parent who felt terrified as a baby may become dysregulated and overwhelmed when his own baby cries.

‘Implicit memory encodings shape the growing architecture of the self,’ wrote Daniel Siegel in his book The Developing Mind.  Even though these memories are unconscious, they affect us in myriad ways as partners, parents, and people. We are basically primed to be reactive. ‘Our lives can become shaped by reactivations of implicit memory, which lack a sense that something is being recalled,’ wrote Siegel. ‘We simply enter these engrained states and experience them as the reality of our present experience.’

Given the reactive triggers they set off, it is not surprising that implicit memories have been associated with ‘panic disorder’ and ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.’ Traumatic memories can be like flashbacks. Think of a war veteran who hides under the desk after hearing a loud noise while safe in his home office. An implicit memory can leave us feeling triggered by things of which we aren’t fully aware or that don’t make sense to us, and yet we have big emotional reactions.

. . . Often, our strongest, most intense reactions in the present come from our implicit memories, because of the intense feelings attached to these memories. However, if we can make these implicit memories explicit, we can resolve unresolved trauma and feel more integrated within ourselves.”

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  1. To me the referred article dances, or bounces somehow for me lacking a better word, between the posibilities (p.ex., can be, can trigger, can become, can unlock), with what appears to me as certainties (p.ex., impacting us, leaving them, we have big, caused them to, we can resolve).

    Without connecting the possibilities with the certainties, if I were right, in a manner I can understand or analyze further.

    And the way to me the narrative refers implicit and explicit memory back and forward in time, from the past to the now, leaves me confused, and uncertain what relevance the dicotomy has for the past, the now, the mix, and the apparently unstated: the future. Though I did not finish the referred article.

    And some statements kinda hanging like: “…lens of a young child, which was not necessarily an accurate lens…” that to me does not necesarily sound bad since I at least presupose it has one evolutionary basis, which, ehem, can be not that bad.

    And leaves me with questions like: Is implicit memory relying on brain structures or bodily ones?, or that depends on age or something else?. And how is that related to the future?, which is probably a dominant interest in psychotherapy.

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  2. I apparently can’t or have great difficulty explaining my analysis and understanding of the text referred here.

    At the risk of writing esoterically and unjustified, even irrationally, there having I no practical alternative but staying “silent” I comment this:

    The referred text leaves me more than confused because it jumps from possibilities to statements that to an average reader are presented as facts of benefit…

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  3. This is a topic which I find fascinating, but also makes me feel very sad for my own lost potential. I would like to ask the author if they can suggest the best therapeutic approached to making the implicit explicit, that we would be really helpful for me right now. Thank you.

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