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What is Memory?

Image of child in bowling alley covering his ears to block the noise. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, Memory, Katherine Broadway

Dianne has been dating Joseph for three years. They have a warm and loving relationship. He treats her with respect and kindness, and is willing to help her when she needs him. They share many interests and spend a lot of their time having fun. Conversation is lively, interesting and intimate. Dianne and Joseph talk about conflicts and disagreements, and can usually resolve them in mutually satisfying ways. Dianne has never told him that she loves him and often needs to make distance. This is particularly true after being intimate.

John has been married twice. After his second intense and painful marriage, he quit dating and says that he never wants another close relationship. He believes that the only way for him to have a content, happy life is to be single.

Dianne and John ask the same question, “Why am I so afraid of closeness?”

The answer can be found in the experiences they had in childhood. When asked to recall what it was like to be close growing up, they have few memories. They don't recall the events that taught them to be afraid of closeness because of the way memory and learning develop.

For a more detailed answer, we need to examine how memory works. Memory is the brain’s ability to encode, store, and retrieve information. It is the means by which we use our past experiences to inform our beliefs, feelings and responses in the present. Memory takes different forms, including images, sounds, smells and


There are two categories of memory:

1. Explicit/declarative Memory:

This is what we usually think of when we use the word “memory”. This is information that is consciously stored and retrieved using the thinking side – the left brain. This information is factual. Explicit memory contains information, episodes, events that are grounded in the here and now. This type of memory is not shaped by emotions; it is composed of facts.

2. Implicit/procedural Memory:

These memories are not based on consciously storing and retrieving information. These memories are stored in the right brain. In order to create a memory, the hippocampus has to be engaged in the process. Unfortunately, it is not always available; therefore, the event is not encoded in the brain as a conscious memory.

During the first 36 months of life, the hippocampus is not mature enough to function in this role. Experiences are encoded in their pure form: raw unconscious memory pockets. The data for the event is scattered throughout the body. The information is not integrated into a coherent, conscious memory, nor is it time stamped “Happened in 1965.” Implicit memories do not feel as though they are coming from the past, therefore, they hijack the current experience.

How does this answer the question asked by Dianne and John?

In situations where fear and pain are involved, the learning that occurs is dissociated from the event. That makes it almost impossible to recall the events that led to certain behaviors and beliefs.

Dianne had a mother who ran hot and cold. After her birth, Dianne’s mother suffered from postpartum depression. When she was feeling good, her mother would hold her, cuddle her, and speak soothing words to her. Dianne would look into the face of a loving, smiling mother. When her mother was depressed, she would be silent, give her a bottle without picking her up, and leave her alone for long periods of time. At these times, Dianne looked into the face of a sad, distant mother and felt no love.

John’s mother did not want to have children. When she discovered she was pregnant, she was angry, disappointed and afraid. Because of religious beliefs, she decided against an abortion. When John was born, his mother’s anger was expressed in the way she held him, spoke to him and looked at him. When he looked into his mother’s face, all he saw was her anger and disgust that he was there to interrupt her life.

Dianne and John learned that it was not safe to be close. As babies, they needed attachment to a loving caretaker to survive. They needed tenderness, love and gentle care to thrive and develop a sense of safety. They were drawn to their mothers out of need and instinct. Dianne would occasionally find love and connection with her mother but soon that would turn to rejection. John lived with consistent rejection and anger.

Dianne and John have implicit memories that informed them what to expect from close relationships.

They created expectations about the world, how it works and what to expect based on the experience they had with their mothers. They had no conscious knowledge of it and were controlled by it. They were afraid of being close because these implicit memories would emerge to warn them that closeness would lead to being hurt.

To use part language, different parts of Dianne and John stepped forward to attempt to protect them. Unfortunately, the beliefs and methods presented were out-dated and caused hurt rather than protection. What each one needed was an internal self that could take charge and make decisions based on the here and now.

In the healing process, it is important to understand the language of the brain and the body, as well as the words that are spoken. It is necessary to pay attention to body responses and posture, often-used words, phrases and expressions, feelings that can be tolerated and feelings that cannot be tolerated. These signs can help you begin to uncover an implicit memory that may be driving your behavior without your knowledge.

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