Posted by on Nov 2, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Memory

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Memory is the alpha and omega of therapy. People often come into therapy because negative memories are affecting their present happiness. They may even blame themselves because they cannot “get over” the past, even the distant past. Perhaps the feeling of not being able to get over something is an internal message, telling us that something is incomplete, or that something about our memory needs to move in some way that is not yet known. It is alive, and wants to move.

Memory is dynamic. As we live, we are constantly interpreting our present experience through the framework of the past, and what we learn changes the meaning of memories.

Sometimes people say the past cannot be changed. This is true in that past events cannot be changed, however, and this is a big however, it is entirely possible to change the way a person holds the memory of the past. So, there is not just the memory, there is an inner relationship to it.

When we live with our memories in the right way, we are more able to be in the present moment, because we are in the right relationship with our aliveness. Being stuck in the past is not pleasant, but neither does it serve our lives to “just close the door”. There is a middle way between these two alternatives (being stuck or closing the door).

Current research tells us that every time we recall a memory, it is subtly changed. We are not computers – we are makers of meaning. We expect a computer to quickly and accurately recall a piece of data in exactly the same form as it was stored. But a human being is in interplay with the world, taking in ideas and experiences, all of which becomes context for re-experiencing memories.

What is memory? We are mostly taught to think that a memory is something linear, something about which you can narrate a chain of events, but this is only one kind of memory.

There are different kinds of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memories are those that we are aware of as memories. For example, you may remember that five minutes ago you got up to get a glass of water, then you had a conversation with someone. This is a narrative memory – you remember certain events and can recount the narrative of the events.

Implicit memory is something else entirely. Implicit memory is formed like a fishing net that catches everything in its path – your thoughts and feelings, your bodily experience, sensory impressions in the environment, and it is re-experienced as “the way things are”. It’s based on emotions, impressions and evaluations, sensory information, and it often cannot be located in a specific time and place. All of this gets transformed inside you, through the process of making sense of things.

Most often, when we are in the middle of an implicit memory, we are not aware of it as a memory. The way we see the world, the way we make sense of our experience, our “filters” and values are based on implicit memory. In your life, how did you learn what kind of person to trust (or not), and how do you apply that learning? That is implicit memory at work.

Very often, when we find ourselves in a mood (whether positive or negative), we are actually experiencing an implicit memory – but the point is, that we do not experience it as a memory, like we do with explicit memories. It just seems like the way things are.

Trauma is often encoded in implicit memory.

Why is all this relevant to therapy? Because in therapy we collaboratively work with memory, with the meaning you make of your life, and reshape that meaning. That changes memory. Not the facts of what happened, but how you hold them.