Coming to terms with memories of past trauma is a core challenge for many people — and especially for people in recovery. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more hopeful I am about the prospect of healing in this critical area of life.
Bessel Van der Kolk is medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In a really helpful interview with Krista Tippet in the On Being radio show, he makes the intriguing observation that, while most of our memories change over time (the details get fuzzy, the meanings we make of them change), for some reason, intense traumatic memories stay fixed.
By the way, if you doubt that memories change, just get together with your siblings some time, and start reminiscing about your experiences when you were kids. You will likely notice how differently your siblings remember things that happened than you do. It’s not that they have the same memory as you, but from a different vantage point … they often remember the same “event” very differently, with different details. It might even seem that there were two different events that happened, like you existed in parallel universes.
Over time their memory of that event changed, as did yours. The memories just changed in different directions. It’s likely that if you had captured the event on video camera in its entirety, you’d find that it happened differently than the “exact memory” either of you had.
Why do our memories change … and what does this mean?
Why is this? Why is it that our memories change? And why is it that traumatic memories don’t? And what can we do to “heal from” — or at least come to terms with — these traumatic memories?
This is important because unresolved early life trauma is often a key piece of the addiction puzzle. Many people develop the habit of reaching for what becomes an “addictive” substance or behavior as a way of coping with pain that stems from early trauma. As life goes on, experiences trigger that old pain, and we in turn keep reaching for that old addictive substance or behavior as a way to cope with the pain. Dealing with that unresolved trauma is essential if lasting recovery is going to happen.
Recent brain research offers some interesting insights about memory that may help us understand how healing happens. The most significant is this: Our brains are not computers that file “memories” away in a certain place on a hard drive.
Our brains do not retrieve memories …
our brains reconstruct memories.
They do this by taking fragments of data that we might think of as impressions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are located in various parts of our “brain” (note that neurons are not always located in our head) and then pulling them together to create a memory.
If our brains reconstruct our memories, it only makes sense that over time, they reconstruct those memories differently, especially as new information is added, new perspective, new context, etc. That’s why our memories change.
I wonder … could it be that the reason that traumatic memories become “locked” is that we don’t recollect them? We resist trying to “remember” them because they are too painful. And could it be that the way we find healing from these past memories is to look at them again … but to do so with other information (our adult perspective, a different context, God’s compassion and forgiveness, etc.)?
I think this is what happens in various effective forms of talk therapy. I’m aware that some forms of talk therapy can actually be NOT helpful … leaving the person retraumatized by reinforcing the pain of the memory. This happens when the memory is reconstructed without adequate new information being introduced. The event is not recontextualized, and therefore remains fixed … even reinforced.
Journaling exercise to overcome PTSD
I remember reading about a study that was done to help people deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The researchers had people write about the traumatic event in a journal for 10 minutes a day for one week. The traumatic event had to have happened at least some months, if not years, in the past (so there was some time gap between the event and the present day).
The journaling instructions were very specific: (1) They wrote about the event, NOT from their own vantage point, but from the vantage point of a third person, describing the event from a distance (2) They did NOT write about their feelings as the event happened … the writing was about the event itself, and from an outside, dispassionate perspective.
The researchers found that people who did this writing exercise got better results than people who did conventional forms of talk therapy, especially talk therapy that focused on the person’s feelings as the event happened. Getting someone to focus on their feelings about a past event simply taps into and reinforces the feelings of terror, sadness, or anger associated with that event.
The genius of this writing exercise is that it gets the person to reconstruct a memory (therefore getting it “unlocked”) … but it also gets reconstructed differently. It gets reconstructed with different perspective, different associations, etc.
We are not bound by the past. We can, as the Apostle Paul says, “forget what lies behind and press on toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13). We can be free. And the freedom comes as we start intelligently reconstructing our memories in new ways.