Understanding Learning and Memory III: Understanding Re-enactment

Bees dance their memories

Bees dance their memories. And so do we.  We dance them. We grow up learning the dance steps of relationship and attachment that we experience. We learn the dance steps so fully we don’t recognize them as dance steps, it is just the way we are. It is just the way we understand and see the world. We dance our worldview. We dance how we expect things to go.

Yesterday I talked about how trauma is intertwined with memory. How trauma becomes procedural or process memory. We dance our memories. We do our dance steps and we expect that the others we meet will dance the same steps. When others don’t respond the way we expect we often do our dance steps more pronounced—we try it harder, to get them to follow our lead. We may not like our dance steps, we may even be trying to change our dance steps, but the pull of familiarity is a gravitational pull. The pull of familiarity is illusion of safety, even when it is the furthest thing from it.

The holidays are now behind us, but I had many friends ask, “Why is it that the same things happen every year?” “Why does my __________ (Fill in the blank: uncle, brother, sister, father, mother) stir up the same argument every year?” “Why do I say those things again? Do those things again?

Why do we continue to do the same dance steps and why is this particular form of memory so strong and powerful? Why does it have so much power to inform our decisions? Earlier this week I wrote that all information from our senses gets routed simultaneously through two memory centers in the brain: the amygdala (the fear/fight/flight center) and the hippocampus-cortex (the main memory storage area). The route through the amygdala is the faster route: it is essentially a security check—Is this dangerous? It is a quick and dirty scan. The brain has a high tolerance for false positives. Better to jump away from a stick on the ground than blithely walk over a poisonous snake. The amygdala is where our emotional memory is stored and it is also where our memories of our first two years of life are primarily stored. And it is stored not as a narrative of what happened, because the amygdala doesn't traffic so much in language. Our memories are stored more in the form of choreography. They are stored as dance steps.  So when information comes in, it gets routed through the amygdala, who holds the archives of our dance steps. It is seeking the dangerous, and for trauma survivors-- the familiar, it is readying us for any familiar danger.

When I was doing my training I spent some time creating a mindfulness group on an adolescent inpatient unit. In my first attempts (since I was new at mindfulness at the time) I brought in mindfulness meditation tapes that I had bought to teach myself. I was new at mindfulness and leading this group and thought perhaps the kids would respond better to a professional tape, and it would leave me available to help kids who were struggling. But that isn’t what happened at all. After listening to the tape, the teenagers were angry. They all talked about how the person on the tape wasn’t friendly, how they didn’t like the voice, how they were sure that the person on the tape was judging them or didn’t like them. They all took a benign (or even kind intentioned) voice and only heard what they had ever heard: anger and judgment. They brought their dance steps and could only imagine the dance steps they knew.

But sometimes, especially with trauma, we don’t just dance our dance steps because they are familiar. We dance so that we can change the outcome. We dance the old dance hoping desperately, if unconsciously, for a different ending. The psychological term for dancing the old dance in a new situation is re-enactment. I have worked with many teenagers who grew up terrified from an abusive childhood, and then spent most of their teen years putting themselves in terrifying situations. They wished so badly to be rescued from the terror when they were young, but it didn’t happen. And so now as a teenager they were trying again. They were dancing with terror hoping that maybe this time they could change the outcome. Maybe this time they would get the rescue and love they didn’t get.

The pull to re-enactment is primal. It is powerful, and in a backwards way I have always viewed it as a sign of hope. There is something in the human psyche that wants to grow. That wants to heal. That wants to be whole. And this desire to get it right this time is a sign of hope. Hope for what couldn’t happen, hope that it someday might.

The problem is that reenactment alone usually doesn’t heal. In fact, it often re-traumatizes. Partly because we are all pretty good at finding similar scenarios to re-create the triggers of the old trauma responses, and partly because you can’t actually fix the past by reworking the exact ending. It is a little like missing lunch last Thursday and trying to eat today for it. It’s over. All you can do is acknowledge the loss of the meal from last Thursday, but you can’t change it today.

What does heal is being able to see the reenactment for what it is. What does heal is having another dance partner—someone in the healing profession—who can help you with your old dance steps—who can translate the memories you are dancing—and who knows that this is what the work is. Someone who knows that you are telling your story through dance steps as much as through what you remember. Someone who has the ability to both join the dance enough to understand it, and yet be able to step away and not get caught in it-- so that you can see yourself dancing. Can see that the dance steps don't belong to the present.

When the teens in my mindfulness groups were talking about their assumptions of the person on the tape they were telling me, with their dance steps, what their experience was in relationships. In order to learn new dance steps they had to be able to check their assumptions about the voice they heard. Become aware of their dance steps. This meant that I had to learn how to lead the meditation groups myself so that the voice they were listening to could be mistrusted at first (their old dance step) and then survive their mistrust so they could experience a different and new dance step. Yes, bees dance their memories, and so do we. And with a lot of hard work we can transform that dance. And dance our way into new memories. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

Learn more about the ways bees talk here.