April 21, 2003
Sexual Problems - Part Part 6: Remembering
Memory is really not as complex as scientists would have us believe.
A footprint in clay is a memory. A parting of grass on the hillside is a memory. A shallow ravine cut into the desert is a memory.
These are all traces - imprints - of things that have happened in the past. The footprint is the imprint of the paw of a raccoon as it came down to the river to drink. The grass on the hillside was parted by the deer that travelled through the day before. The shallow ravine is the imprint of the water that cut its way through the coarse sand during a flash flood last month. Each imprint tells some of the story of the event that created it - but not the whole story.
Our brains are organic forms just like the clay, the grass, and the sand.
Sensation passes through us in continual surges of electrochemical activity. Every experience moves through us like the rain running down a ravine. From neuron to neuron, in bursts that spread out through our brains like branch lightning, the signals travel complex pathways. Experience is not imprinted in a single location, like a footprint. Rather, it is imprinted as a pattern that the experience travels when it passes through us. If we can focus our energy and make the same neurons fire in the same pattern, we have what we call a "memory." We experience some aspect of the original experience in our minds and bodies.
Memory, however, is not the experience that imprinted it. In fact, since every event is infinitely complex, no imprint of it can capture the complete experience. An imprint is just that - an imprint. A human memory is only an impression of an experience.
Imprints are only as good as the degree of experience gathered by the senses. If the eyes are closed during an experience, our memories will not include a visual representation of the scene that occurred at the time. A camera will not get a picture if the lens is covered. If anything clouds, distracts, or interferes with our senses, the accompanying memory will be a less accurate impression of the event. In the shock of events like sexual abuse, dissociation causes the senses to be distracted or disabled, which will interfere with the accuracy of the sensations to be imprinted into memory.
Imprints are also only as good as the condition of the medium that receives the imprint. A footprint in sand will not be as accurate or last as long as a footprint in firm clay. If our brains and bodies are in an injured or dysfunctional state they will not imprint experience accurately. This is a crucial point. Shock is often a state that anticipates death. In severe cases of shock, the body slides towards disintegration and records the experience in a distorted and fragmented way. Like the images captured by an automatic camera in the face of a volcanic eruption, the images will distort more and more as the camera is damaged by the heat.
A very painful, overwhelming experience is imprinted just like every other experience. The memory is partially or wholly repressed - blocked from working consciousness - by various biochemical blocks (neurotransmitters) and avoidance behaviours. But the imprint remains. When it is triggered or rises on its own, we are assaulted by images and feeling fragments that frighten and disturb us.
If we have some memory of a traumatic event, we want to purge it from our systems. If we have no previous recollection of the images that plague us, we may doubt the validity of them and even question our sanity. There is a great deal of confusion - in clients and professionals - as to the best way to proceed. This confusion is a result of myths about the nature of memory.
To clarify this confusion, consider the following four points:
1) Nothing can create an exact imprint of an event. Therefore human memory is a not perfect replica, it is an impression.
2) Memory is only as accurate as the senses are open and the system is functional.
3) The amygdala, which resides deep in the midbrain, is constantly receiving signals that originate both from new sensory experience and recalled imprints laid down in the past. It will respond with a physiological flight, fight, or freeze response to anything that seems threatening - whether it is an old imprint or a new sensation. To the amygdala, they are all just signals - it doesn't know the difference.
4) The past does not exist. Memories are not the past, they are impressions/imprints laid down in the past. When we suffer from traumatic memories, we are disturbed by old troubling imprints that are being reactivated now.
Traumatic memories in our unconscious are like scary animals that somebody stuck in our basement years ago. Classic sexual abuse therapy often wants you to verify details of the original intrusion and prosecute the person who put the animals there. Cognitive therapy wants to train you to think differently about the critters. Behavioural therapy wants you to learn to be desensitized to their presence. Psychopharmacology wants you to take drugs so they won't bother you as much.
Primal Integration helps you accept the reality of these creatures - these painful fragmented memories. It then assists you to take action, let them out of the house - and get your life back.
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Sexual Problems - Part 1: It's a Feeling Problem