Trigger warning: Studies have found that trigger warnings do not work. Still, I’d like to advise against reading this article if topics like childhood abuse, PTSD, sexual abuse, trauma, depression, or traumatic memories, are sensitive topics that might cause you to spiral. However, you might find this helpful if you’d like to know more about memory loss and trauma or depression and how they affect us.
What is your earliest memory?
Did you have a flashback?
Whether you did or not, the first thing you remember should date a little after your third birthday.
According to Freud, the inappropriate nature of our thoughts as kids causes this childhood amnesia. Freud’s gonna Freud.
According to almost every single person I’ve met, the research is wrong.
Why your first memory might be a lie
Whenever I randomly mention that our first memory isn’t registered before turning 3-3.5 years old, someone tells me that’s not true. They remember things from when they were one.
“I even told my mum, going over all the details. She couldn’t believe I remembered that because they never mentioned it to me.”
Well, as it turns out, you and your mom are lying. You’re not doing it on purpose, though, so it’s okay.
Our ability to form memories isn’t neurologically developed yet at three years old.
“Because of this, scientists refer to memories from these years as “fictional.”Shazia Akhtar, senior research associate at the University of Bradford in England for Your Earliest Memory Probably Never Happened
Over time, with the help of pictures, overheard conversations, and perceived facts, your fictional memories start feeling very real. Maybe your mum didn’t tell you the story, but she might have told a friend over the phone about the event while you were present.
Personal experiences (also called explicit memories) are stored in the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala. Explicit memories aren’t stored in the brain before you’re 3-3.5 years old.
Let’s talk pasta.
Whenever I randomly mention that most storebought pasta is vegan, people tell me that’s not true. Well, it is. Anyway, back to the article.
“Memories are like orzo, little bits and pieces of neural encoding. Young children’s brains are like colanders with large holes trying to retain these little pieces of memory. As the water rushes out, so do many of the grains of orzo. Adults, however, use a fine net instead of a colander for a screen.”What’s Your Earliest Memory?, written by Janice Wood on January 26, 2014
So, will I be sending the orzo analogy and links to memory research to people who’ve told me they remember blowing the candles for their first birthday? Is this why I’m writing this?
But I wanted to get you to think about memories. Organic or fictional, good or bad, from childhood or the other week.
“Suffering from memories”- How trauma changes the brain
In 1895, referring to trauma, Freud said: “I think this man is suffering from memories.”
What researchers and psychologists have found, though, is that the opposite is also true.
Memory looks drastically different for people who have been through traumatic experiences. Known as traumatic memory, this type of memory recall differs from normal recall and it involves many psychological layers.
Memory loss and depression
Prof. Donald Shelton and Prof. Brock Kirwan from the Department of Psychology at Brigham Young University tested the correlation between memory and depression.
People with depression received lower scores on their memory tests. They struggled to differentiate between similar things.
This doesn’t mean that there is a correlation between amnesia and depression.
Rather, as Prof. Kirwan explained: “There are two areas in your brain where you grow new brain cells. One is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. It turns out that this growth is decreased in cases of depression.”
Another 2015 study came to a similar conclusion. When depressive thoughts are present, there’s a working memory capacity deficit.
Memory loss and trauma
In the #1 New York Times bestseller book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk M.D. shares:
“On February 11, 2001, Julian was serving as a military policeman at an air force base. During his daily phone conversation with his girlfriend, Rachel, she mentioned a lead article she’d read that morning in the Boston Globe. A priest named Shanley was under suspicion for molesting children. Hadn’t Julian once told her about a Father Shanley who had been his parish priest back in Newton?
“Did he ever do anything to you?” she asked.
Julian initially recalled Father Shanley as a kind man who’d been very supportive after his parents got divorced. But as the conversation went on, he started to go into a panic.
He suddenly saw Shanley silhouetted in a doorframe, his hands stretched out at forty-five degrees, staring at Julian as he urinated. Overwhelmed by emotion, he told Rachel, “I’ve got to go.” He called his flight chief, who came over accompanied by the first sergeant. After he met with the two of them, they took him to the base chaplain.
Julian recalls telling him: “Do you know what is going on in Boston? It happened to me, too.” The moment he heard himself say those words, he knew for certain that Shanley had molested him—even though he did not remember the details.” (emphasis mine)
Puzzling the pieces together
People who have experienced trauma have fragmented or completely inaccessible memories. For most trauma survivors who developed PTSD, memories show up as images, emotions, or physical sensations.
Like Julian, they struggle to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
As it turned out, Shanley had abused hundreds of kids throughout the years.
He was convicted. But hundreds of memory scientists joined the appeal to overturn the conviction. They claimed that “repressed memories” were based on “junk science.”
Can you imagine being one of those kids and hearing that the marvelous way your brain found to cope with such horror was “junk science“?
Junk science, memory loss and trauma recreated in the lab
This happened because researchers had “recreated trauma in the laboratory” and found no correlation between trauma and memory loss. As you might guess, laboratory-induced trauma isn’t the same as real-life trauma.
In what I consider to be the wild, wild west of psychological research, just in the line of ethics, Dr. Roger Pitman at Harvard showed college students a film that contained footage of violent deaths.
Now widely banned, this movie, as extreme as it was, did not cause students to develop PTSD symptoms. Traumatic memory cannot be replicated.
Studying the link between memory loss and trauma
The connection between memory loss and trauma was first studied in the 1860s, regarding railway accidents and then for combat soldiers in WWI.
A Lancet article from 1944 described the aftermath of rescuing the entire British army from Dunkirk beaches in 1940. More than 10% of soldiers had suffered major memory loss after the evacuation.
Yet, memory scientists fought against each other in the Shanley case, with some protecting the victims and some the church.
Experts testifying in name of the church said that memories of childhood abuse were false. These memories were probably “implanted in their minds by therapists who were oversympathetic, credulous, or driven by their own agendas.“1
Fortunately, there’s now what I would consider a consensus in the memory and psychology research world that a percentage of trauma survivors forget and later remember their abuse.2
“When we recall a previous life event, we have the ability to re-immerse ourselves in the experience. We remember the room we were in, the music that was playing, the person we were talking to and what they were saying.
When we first experience the event, all these distinct aspects are represented in different regions of the brain, yet we are still able to remember them all later on. It is the hippocampus that is critical to this process, associating all these different aspects so that the entire event can be retrieved.”Dr. Aidan Horner from UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience for The Neuroscience of Recalling Old Memories
People who endured trauma or suffered from depression have a different relationship with memory. Some relive the trauma and disassociate, others bury it deep in a place they forget about.
“After any type of trauma (from combat to car accidents, natural disasters to domestic violence, sexual assault to child abuse), the brain and body change.”The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes The Brain, Michele Rosenthal
Last Saturday, around noon, I shared on Instagram that my boyfriend and I were planning on throwing a party just for the two of us, that would include homemade sushi and five types of cocktails.
All I’d written for Sunday’s article was the title. He would get off work at 2 PM. Could I do it? (I even included a poll and 50 people answered “YES”. Thank you! So, in a way, I wrote Struggling on Your Career Path? Maybe You’re Like Leonardo Da Vinci! for you.)
I started writing this on Monday, 11 Jan 2021. I wanted to get it right right for last Sunday, but sometimes even I am not in the mood to write about trauma.
The main point of this article could be wrapped up in one sentence– that if you’ve experienced trauma or struggle with depression, and your relationship with your memory stresses you out, you should know that you are not alone and that it’s not your fault. Your brain is trying to come up with creative ways to help out.
Ending on a positive-ish note
I’ve added a few helpful resources below. Being my relentlessly positive self, I’d like to end on a good note, not because I’m into toxic positivity or think happiness is an end goal in itself, but because I believe this and have found it true for myself.
“I often ask my patients if they can think of any person they felt safe with while they were growing up. Many of them hold tight to the memory of that one teacher, neighbor, shopkeeper, coach, or minister who showed that he or she cared, and that memory is often the seed of learning to reengage.
We are a hopeful species. Working with trauma is as much about remembering how we survived as it is about what is broken.“The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk M.D. (emphasis mine)
I care. My educated guess is that a lot of people do too.
Something happened to me years ago. At the time, I didn’t know what I had to do, but my brain did. The only way I could carry on was by forgetting.
Many memories began arising afterward, when I was doing much better, in a place where it was safe for me to process.
Some memories still feel like tip-of-the-tongue experiences. You know when you can’t remember what something is called, even though you know the name of it? It feels similar.
Memories or realizations come to me in the smallest fragments, but with patience and self-compassion, I’ve been able to piece them all together and create a story that tells me what happened. It’s the memory of a memory.
As that last quote said, I hope that at least one person is planting that seed in you to trust again and reengage. It’s worth it.
Working with trauma is as much about what is broken as it is about remembering how we survived.
And you will.
I take my research seriously and I try to be as informative as possible. However, this information may not be suitable for your specific situation, it is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional, and shouldn’t be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.
1 The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
2 Sources from The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
B. A. van der Kolk and R. Fisler, “Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 8 (1995): 505–25; J. W. Hopper and B. A. van der Kolk, “Retrieving, Assessing, and Classifying Traumatic Memories: A Preliminary Report on Three Case Studies of a New Standardized Method,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 4 (2001): 33–71; J. J. Freyd and A. P. DePrince, eds., Trauma and Cognitive Science (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2001), 33–71;
A. P. DePrince and J. J. Freyd, “The Meeting of Trauma and Cognitive Science: Facing Challenges and Creating Opportunities at the Crossroads,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 4, no. 2 (2001): 1–8; D. Brown, A. W. Scheflin, and D. Corydon Hammond, Memory, Trauma Treatment and the Law (New York: Norton, 1997);
K. Pope and L. Brown, Recovered Memories of Abuse: Assessment, Therapy, Forensics (Washington: American Psychological Association, 1996); and L. Terr, Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found (New York: Basic Books, 1994).