Understanding Learning and Memory II: Trauma and memory are intertwined.


Repeated trauma and memory are intertwined. To understand the journey to healing from repeated trauma is to understand, appreciate the brain’s system of trying to sort it all out and survive. Yesterday I focused on the way memory is formed: either through urgency, repetition, or association. And today I want to talk about the type of memory—because there are different sorts which I alluded to yesterday and in a previous post about traumatic memory. There are essentially memories of content (which are also called declarative memories or explicit memories) and there are memories of process (which are also called procedural memories or implicit memories).

Content, declarative, explicit memories: these are what we all actually think of when we think of memory. When you ask someone: tell me what happened at the meeting last week—you are asking a question of the declarative sort—you want information, you want a narrative. When you reminisce about what you did on your honeymoon, or what you did in high school—you are pulling on memories that have a who-what-when-where. Information that can be categorized.

Process memory is a memory driven more by the senses—by feel (action/movement), emotion, spatial recognition, sequence, tone. When you learn to ride a bike—there is information that guides you (keep your hands on the handlebars, keep pedaling) but the motion of your feet and the feeling of balance is an implicit memory. Implicit memories are difficult to describe. When someone asks you ‘how do you do that?’ when you swing a golf club, or tie a knot in your shoe laces—you have to really think about the sequence. You ‘know’ how to do it—but you don’t know how you know.

If you have ever lived in an old house where there is a door that is too low you will recognize the learning that happens when you wack your head on the doorframe, and how you subsequently duck as you head to that door. You don’t need to think about it, you automatically do it, even in the dark when there is no visual cue for the door. You body just knows when it is near the door and ducks instinctively. And if there is more than one door in your house that is of an uneven height, you might begin to duck, even just slightly, at all doors—just to be efficient and be sure. This is procedural memory.

And trauma becomes part of our procedural memory. If we learned that being in relationships was dangerous, that we would, metaphorically speaking, wack our head on the doorframe, then we “duck” when we are near people who we associate with that feeling. We don’t think about it, we just duck. I think of procedural memories as blueprints or mental scaffolding. Our brains are so efficient. They experience the world and then make a plan of it so they can anticipate as much as possible. The key is that they make this blueprint or scaffolding from the memories that are the most well-worn. We work most off of over-learned memories—and as we saw yesterday- urgency and repetition make memories the strongest. And when you combine those two things with repeated trauma you get some seriously intense learning.

But the key to understanding repeated trauma is that the learning is not so much: this is exactly what happened when. It is more: I instinctively know when to duck. And I do it whenever I perceive myself to be in a similar situation. Procedural learning is often generalized learning. I don’t need to know how to ride each specific bike, or drive every specific car because I know the important things to look for and how to work them. And we do this with learning, with relationships, with how we approach things, or avoid things.

And with trauma we are even more likely to generalize the learning, the fear, because strong emotions and fear make us more likely to generalize and more likely to hold on to this learning. They recently did a study of mice where they trained them to fear one tone with something frightening, like a foot-shock and paired a different tone with a something neutral like a color. These tones were far away from each other on the auditory scale. And when the foot-shock wasn’t that stressful the mice distinguished between the two tones. But when they increased the stress and fear of the mice from the foot-shocks—in other words, increased their trauma, they stopped distinguishing between the two tones and basically jumped at any sound. They ducked at any door. This is what brains do when they get stressed repeatedly.

This is why when I teach graduate students about becoming a therapist I try to explain that lots of people coming in for help, especially with trauma histories,  aren’t going to experience therapy as helpful—not at first, and often not for a long time. Their blueprint for relationship has them imagining that they are going to hit their heads on the door—so they duck. And they don’t trust any other way of being for a long time. So repetition becomes a powerful instructor to revise the old patterns and old associations. As helpers we believe that our clients should know that we are different than any of the people who have hurt them in the past, but that’s not how brains work. They generalize. People hurt me. People are dangerous. You are a person. You are dangerous. And it takes both unlearning and new learning to shift this. Lots and lots of repetition of this. And as clients we can get frustrated too—we know logically that the person trying to help us is different, but we are stuck in our patterns—and no matter how hard we try to hold our head up through the door, we find ourselves ducking. For a while we only have our dance steps that we brought with us and have learned so well.

Tomorrow we will look at those dance steps and how to understand them better so that we can have more patience with the process of healing.

Resources for trauma and memory: Article: Memory from traumatic experiences in early childhood.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 201