Often people who have had overwhelming experiences—from a car accident to years of emotional abuse—are given the advice to “move on.” While these statements are often well intentioned, they lack an understanding of how trauma actually works. People can not just consciously decide to put these events in the past because remnants of these experiences are stored in the body as implicit memories.
Psychologists make a distinction between two basic types of memory. Explicit memories are those that we know are memories. These memories can either be factual (our telephone number and our knowledge that Washington as the first President) or narrative/autobiographical (Jane’s recall of having her first taste of chocolate cake at her birthday party when she was five). Most of the time when we think about memory we are referring to explicit memory. These memories are conscious and verbal, and we can CHOOSE to recall them or not.
Implicit memories are unconscious. The most easily understood form of implicit memory is “procedural memory.” These are memories that involve a sequence of coordinated motor acts. We might have a hard time describing these actions verbally, yet we can easily do them once we have learned them. For example, someone might not have played a piano for 15 years but find that when they sit down on a piano bench, they can play a C scale without hesitation (though perhaps not flawlessly).
Implicit memories also come in the form of thoughts, emotions and bodily reactions that “triggered” by things that we can’t identify--we do not choose to retrieve them.
For example, Jane walks into her friend’s kitchen and all of a sudden feels warm and can taste chocolate cake. Upon reflection, she might realize that these feelings and sensations are because of the positive experiences she had in her childhood sitting at grandmother’s eating chocolate cake. It is important to note that in this example the body reacted with warmth and a taste memory before the conscious recollection.
There are other situations where we might not be able to identify the source of certain sensations at all. For example, Jane might suddenly feel agitated at a loud, chaotic rock concert, and she does not realize an implicit memory of her loud, chaotic family of origin is being triggered. She’s confused and embarrassed. Her boyfriend is also confused and annoyed. What is supposed a fun event has been misperceived as a threat.
Dangerous and traumatic situations create implicit memories. When we are threatened, the parts of our nervous system responsible for basic survival (such as fight, flight or freeze) take over. These instinctive reactions are remarkably quick and do not involve conscious, higher order cognitive functioning. The frontal lobes of our brain that are responsible for rational, reasoned behavior shut down and our survival brain takes over.
During trauma, implicit memories become imprinted in survivor’s brains. The “memories” are then triggered in situations that may only vaguely resemble the traumatic situation to our rational self. At the same time, our body is remembering danger.
Trauma survivors often feel panic, dread, despair, numbing, nausea, restlessness, hypervigilance or disconnection. They don’t always realize they are having an implicit memory, but instead, they feel there is something “wrong” with them.
The prominent trauma researcher, Dan Siegel, puts it this way in Mindsight : “When the images and sensations of experience remain in ‘implicit-only’ form... they remain in unassembled neural disarray, not tagged as representations derived from the past…Such implicit-only memories continue to shape the subjective feeling we have of our here-and-now realities, the sense of who we are moment to moment…” (2010, p.154).
We see then that resolving trauma is not just a matter of picking ourselves up and moving on. Trauma leaves physiological traces in the form of implicit memories that don’t easily go away.
But that doesn’t mean there is no hope. The concept of implicit memory can help people understand their experience and feel less shame. And fortunately, our understanding of trauma has brought forth a variety of new therapies that encourage reintegration of implicit memories and healing.