How many times have we heard or told ourselves that because something happened a long time ago we should be over it, or not be affected by it? If you are like most people, you might be experiencing embarrassment, guilt, or worse shame for still being troubled by events which happened long ago. While the feelings are legitimate, the mindset which makes this assumption is outdated. It does not honor what we now understand about the way we integrate long-term memories via our implicit and explicit memory systems.
- It is an unconscious and unintentional form of memory. It is also know as non-declarative memory.
- It is an experiential and functional form of memory, which does not require conscious thought. In fact, it cannot be consciously recalled.
- It is part of our body-muscle memories, which allow us to remember how to ride a bike or drive a stick shift and get out at the correct exit when we think about something else. As a matter of fact, conscious thoughts cannot stop it from being active.
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- It develops before birth and most influence our experience and perception of the world during the first years of our life. While no one “remembers” their experience of being in their mother’s womb, or being born, or our first or second years of life, our body, our brain and nervous system unconsciously do through our implicit memory system. This doesn’t mean that we factually remember what took place at all times during these early periods of development. It does, however, mean that on a deeper level, below our daily conscious awareness, we can remember the general atmosphere of what took place, especially in periods of greater vulnerability, fear or anxiety.
- It ultimately forms the lenses we use to see the world, and what we intrinsically believe about ourselves.
- It can be triggered out of the blue. Because implicit memories are sensory based, a color, a smell, a texture, a flavor, an emotion, or the feelings a thought triggers in us all stem from our implicit memory system. When our implicit memory system fires-up, it brings to consciousness memories that often seem unrelated to what is happening in our current life.
- It is mediated by the amygdala –the alarm system of the brain– which is very reactionary and operates MUCH faster than our slower thinking brain. Let’s remember that an hyper-active amygdala has a propensity to blow things out of proportions and distort reality because of its focus on threat and survival.
- It is non-sequential, meaning it is not rooted in linear time and space. If our feelings and sensory experiences were felt intensely when they initially happened, even if it was 3 months ago, or 20 or 60 years ago, we are most likely to feel them as intensely in the present.
- Our implicit memories become our immediate reality, even if in reality nothing of the sort is taking place.
- It is the process of conscious learning of facts and events in a linear and sequential manner. It is also known as declarative memory.
- It is accessed by conscious intention.
- It allows for our sense of self in time and space. Remembering how old you were and where you were when you learned that the twin towels had been attacked comes from your explicit memory. Remembering how you felt, how your body reacted to these horrific and senseless images comes from your implicit memory system. In a less emotionally charged manner, it is our explicit memory which allows us to remember our work schedule, doctor appointments, the birthdays of our friends and loved ones and who our last President was.
- It begins developing between 18 months to 2 years old, therefore, it is not operational at all at birth, and is barely functional during early childhood.
- It becomes more operational as we age, especially in our late childhood and our teenage years. This is why most of us have childhood amnesia and can’t recall our two-year-old birthday and only have sparse memories of earlier years.
This other chart below helps us compare both kinds of memories:
So, why does it matter to know more about these two different types of memories and how they affect us? First, I think it helps us to have more empathy for ourselves and others because many of our life experiences can’t easily be expressed through a coherent and logical narrative which always make sense, at least from an explicit memory perspective. Since much of who we are is rooted in the implicit blueprints we’ve received and integrated along our life –specially our early life– we shall stand humbled that there is way more to us than the stories (often the BS stories), we tell ourselves and others. Our implicit memories hold much of our complexity and of our shadow. We can’t run away from these aspects of our psyche without paying the price of feeling at war within ourselves.
As stated at the beginning of this Post, countless times many of us feel embarrassed that troublesome, and sometimes traumatic events, which happened a very long time ago still affect us. When we understand how our psyches we are wired, we can give ourselves a break and use the right modalities to move through our painful past and heal it. While understanding and having a coherent narrative helps make sense of our lives (functions of our explicit memory system), in and of itself it is not sufficient to help us process and integrate these aspects of our lives which are stored in our implicit memory system. Implicit memories and experiences are only processed and integrated when we allow our senses, our body, our emotions, our non-verbal communication to be a part of our exchange with those with whom we feel safe. The paradox is that in order to do so we must embrace the uncertainty principle. We must learn to let these implicit memories reveal themselves without needing to control them, or to make sense of them too early on. Their deeper meaning will come, but in their own time. In that regard, it often helps to remember that implicit memories are timeless.
Knowing about implicit vs. explicit memories helps us have more empathy towards our behaviors which we know will not deliver what we want from them, yet we can’t stop repeating even against our best judgments: constantly falling in love with people who can’t love us, putting ourselves at risks with reckless behaviors, buying stuff we know we don’t need, eating more or less food than our body needs, refraining from sharing our needs and wants with the trustworthy people in our lives, etc. These examples and countless others are some of the many ways we act-out our implicit memories. The sad truth is that we will keep on behaving as such for as long as we do not process and reintegrate their messages. We will do so against our best judgments, our strong logic and compelling narratives.
While many forms of therapies are limited in their ability to access our implicit memories, there are many powerful therapeutic modalities which are best suited to do so. Among the heavy weights in this category are: SE (Somatic Experience), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), Brainspotting, TRM (Trauma Resiliency Model), Dream-tending and Voice Dialogue. All of these approaches provide us direct access to our implicit memories which are asking to be integrated. Our willingness to access these deeper layers of our being allows us to have more honest and transparent communication with ourselves and the people in our lives. While both implicit and explicit memory systems are required to live rich and actualized life, the curiosity and openness which come when we are willing to honor our implicit life allow us –in time– to literally re-wire our brains in more holistic, resilient and adaptive ways.
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©