The Body Keeps the Score: Healing Trauma By Understanding Implicit Memory
While implicit memory is a vital part of our long-term memory, the way it works in people who have suffered traumatic experiences must be understood to achieve holistic healing. For more than two decades, I studied multigenerational trauma—how it is passed down and how to interrupt the cycle. I have introduced my work on Epigenetics in Psychology and how a person’s environment plays a significant role in their mental and physical health. I have given considerable attention to Adverse Childhood Experiences and the long-term effects they have on the lives of children well into adulthood.
The examination of the role of implicit memory in healing trauma is just one branch of the entire tree of generational trauma.
When the average person hears the word “trauma,” they most likely think about it as a mental experience—only acknowledging the cognitive implications without understanding the magnitude of the body’s role.
Implicit memory can be understood by placing it in juxtaposition with explicit memory. Both implicit and explicit memory involves long-term memory. Simply put, the information you remember unconsciously and effortlessly is known as implicit memory. Conversely, the information you must work to remember consciously is referred to as explicit memory. Neither of these terms, in and of itself, are exclusive to any particular experience, including traumatic experiences. However, implicit memory plays a vital role in traumatic memory experiences.
An example of explicit memory is driving home and pulling into the driveway but not remembering the last 10 minutes of the trip because you were distracted on a call. Your implicit memory pulled data instantaneously from your subconscious and guided you home. Remembering how to ride a bike, dress, navigate familiar areas, and more are all forms of implicit memory.
The challenge of effectively addressing trauma is that most people view the issue through their understanding of explicit memory—things we consciously recall. Because implicit memory, also referred to as non-declarative memory, is an unconscious act, most people aren’t aware of it when it is taking place. Yet, implicit memory has a decisive impact on the trauma experience.
While explicit memory involves information and experiences we can consciously recall, implicit memory involves perceptional and emotional unconscious memories. The fact that implicit memories are unconscious and connected to our emotions and perceptions means they can be triggered without our knowledge. This is why people who have been traumatized can go from calm to frenetic in seconds without warning or explanation.
Types of of Implicit Memory
- Procedural Learning: Procedural memory is part of implicit memory responsible for knowing how to perform a particular action, such as reading, tying shoes, and riding a bike. Procedural memories are automatically retrieved for executing cognitive and motor skills procedures. This enables task performance without the need for conscious control or attention. The association of procedural learning with muscle memory can make specific actions second nature (Bullemer, Nissen, & Willingham, 1989).
- Priming: Priming is a non-conscious form of implicit human memory concerned with the perceptual identification of words and objects. Priming can be associative, negative, positive, affective, conceptual, perceptual, repetitive, or semantic. The subtle effects that this complex psychological phenomenon encompasses can be employed to manipulate individual behavior.
- Category Learning: Category learning involves the attainment of a concept to clarify and categorize various entities via grouping (Ell, Shawn, Zilioli, & Monica, 2012). Category learning allows for comparisons and indicates subjective divisions for better comprehension.
- Perceptual Learning: Perceptual learning constitutes the foundation for cognitive processes and cooperates with the neural basis to produce the prime effect. Perceptual learning also improves perception by distinguishing similar things from each other.
- Emotional Learning: Emotional learning, which involves autobiographical memories entangled with emotions, refers to the impact of emotions upon an individual.
The Body Keeps the Score
This may sound a bit off for the average person, but the human body is a mind within itself. It is my opinion that Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is the world’s foremost expert on traumatic stress. Dr. van der Kolk has offered a wealth of empirical data to underline the massive impact of traumatic stress and how the body stores that stress on a genetic and cellular level. Understanding the premise behind how the body keeps the score is imperative in changing the score (outcome).
Unfortunately, trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the traumatic aftermath of combat. One in five Americans has been molested (these numbers are much higher among African American women). One in four grew up with an alcoholic in the home. One in three couples has engaged in physical violence. These experiences inevitably leave residual traces in the mind, emotions, and even the biology of those who experience them. Dr. Joy DeGruy did a tremendous job in laying out this truth in her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. I have chronicled the pervasiveness of trauma in works that include Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery and The Undoing of the African American Mind.
Dr. van der Kolk, Dr. DeGruy, and I have attempted to illuminate the fact that our generational trauma is coded in our DNA, and the memories of new traumatic experiences are stored in every cell of our body.
One of the reasons talk therapy, alone, is not highly effective in helping to heal trauma is because talk therapy involves explicit memory primarily. The greatest frustrations associated with trauma are beneath the surface and often originate from biological impulses. This is why a person can rationally hold one belief but inexplicably do the opposite. For example, a person can know that they have an excellent opportunity to build a wonderful life with a person. Still, if they have trauma related to relational hurt, abandonment, physical abuse, etc., their bodies can literally force them to look for everything wrong. They will consistently sabotage these types of opportunities. The same can be said for business opportunities, financial growth, and more.
When a person experiences a trauma-related episode, they are experiencing what is referred to as traumatic memory. Traumatic memories are formed after an experience that causes high levels of emotional arousal and the activation and release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These memories become consolidated, stable, and enduring long-term memories (LTMs) through protein synthesis in just a few hours of the experiences. The fact that memories of traumatic experiences are created via protein synthesis further emphasizes that trauma is as much a biological process as it is mental and emotional.
According to Julie Lopez, founder of the Viva Center in Washington D.C., every human has implicit memory—something she refers to as a hidden control panel in the brain. While this control panel cannot be consciously directed, it controls approximately 96 percent of our behavior and life outcomes.
Our primary function in life is to survive and excel, and our implicit memory is designed to facilitate that when it is healthy. The good news is that while we cannot directly tap into this control panel, we do have the power to reprogram it—vastly changing the outcomes of our lives associated with traumatic experiences.
Let’s view an example of implicit memory working to anchor people to negative experiences in a way that forces them to subconsciously or unconsciously sabotage their lives. I will use my client, Kerry (name changed to protect identity), to show you how this works. Kerry was abused as a child. Both parents were alcoholics and violent. She never knew when one of them would go on a tirade of violence. As you can imagine, Kerry suffered in school. Who can focus on getting good grades when you literally fear for your safety? Unfortunately for Kerry, physical violence, in the traditional sense, wasn’t the only thing she had to worry about as a child.
Kerry’s father was molesting her. When she came to me at age 58, she still suffered from traumatic episodes that destroyed two marriages and several career opportunities. She could not sustain friendships due to trust issues.
The problem was the therapists Kerry had worked with attempted to address the issue from the consciousness platform. On a conscious level, Kerry knew when she had a good man in her life. She knew how awesome her career could be and that she was on the fast track to success. It was not her conscious thought processes that were the problem. See, Kerry suffered from complex trauma (the stacking of traumatic events), and each one of those experiences created implicit memories anchored in powerful emotions. Here is where it gets tricky. Most of the traumatic episodes that led to her destroying relationships and her career didn’t emerge from her conscious or even her subconscious. They were a biological reaction to certain stimuli. Her body was forcing her to view her current reality through the lens of her past. Without knowing it, she was errantly looking for what was wrong as a survival mechanism. Remember, our implicit memory is there to help us survive and excel—in that order.
Because this process is biological, regular talk therapy can only help identify the behavior. Kerry and I had to go deeper into sensory engagement to reprogram the genetic coding triggering her behavior. Trauma is a sensory experience, and it is recorded as such. Brain-based therapies that are sensory-related are essential to healing trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Neurofeedback, and Brainspotting have proved invaluable in my work.
So, for the person who feels like they have put in the work to heal but still seem to be making decisions that don’t make sense, you need to find someone equipped to help you confront your trauma on a sensory level. The body keeps the score. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.,
My wife Marion is one of the bravest people I have ever met. She is also a survivor of childhood trauma. Check out her story in her book, Ghettos Forgotten Daughters!
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