The memory debate

Ever since these new memories have surfaced, I have questioned them. I’m still incredulous about having not remembered anything about these events prior to last year, but on the other hand, they make sense in context of some other unanswered questions.

My original search started in an effort to find the description on rainn.org of body memories. I remembered reading it once and finding it was not the same context in which I was using the term when trying to describe what I experience. I couldn’t navigate back to where I found it (and my memory of the content is very vague), so decided to try a general Google search for a definition of the term “body memories”. It was through this I stumbled upon everything from websites describing the role of body memories in trauma, to websites refuting the claim that body memories even exist. In all of these websites, I think I found a small handful that used the term in the way I use it. I guess I will have to be specific when talking to anyone new about what I mean when I say I experience body memories: the physical sensations associated with an act or occurrence. For me, body memories are generally experienced as the feeling of hands or other body parts on or in my body. It’s not limited to that though. I also experience body memories of instances of self-harm (cutting or burning). While the body memories of being assaulted/abused trigger cognitive memories of the assault as well as the emotional effects, the body memories of the self harm often bring about the same relief that actually engaging in the self harm would. I get the rush of relaxation, the slowing of thoughts, the release of bodily tension, and respite from the flashbacks or suicidal thinking. The “flashback” of the self harm is experienced the same way as a flashback of any of the other negative stuff that went on in my life. It holds true to the experiencing of the self harm and its emotional aftermath. Honestly, I wish I could induce the self harm memories whenever the flashbacks of the assaults became too overwhelming. It does the same thing as the cutting, but I don’t get in trouble for it… and maybe if I mastered control of the self harm flashbacks, I could master control of the assault flashbacks.

Anyway, I had mentioned coming across sites that try to refute the concept of repressed memory and body memories. I read through two of them, as well as a few websites that sided “with” the concept of body memories. I must admit, the ones “for” it were somewhat better written than the ones “against” it… one “against” site sounded like it was written by someone with a personal, vested interest in proving the concept false. There was no explanation of their terminology, no references (on the page I read), and lots of teenage-like bashing. I must point out I did not explore the rest of the site beyond reading most of the linked page. I found the “interview” transcripts a frustrating read since most therapists I have had the pleasure of meeting are more well-spoken than what was presented there, but again, that’s my own bias. The other site simply pointed out the dangers of unfounded allegations and offered a few references. That said, one of the pages I read “for” repressed memories and body memories offered real scholarly evidence and critical thinking around the topics. It also pointed to several other articles both supporting and denying the claims that repressed memories of trauma are valid. I would like to point out here that none of the pages talking about the validity of repressed memories actually gave a definition of body memories, used the term “body memories” very often, or described them in any detail beyond calling them a physical re-experiencing. Most of the pages spoke about flashbacks without separating out the physical re-experiencing of the events. I am unsure why this is, since as recently as last year, I was able to find this info quite readily. Perhaps it is related to the controversy around body memories and “false memories”, as well as the lack of research on the topic.

Some other sites I found that would be good to read through:

I could not find the second page refuting body memories this time around (didn’t think to save any of the links the first time I went through my search yesterday afternoon). I’m sure it exists out there, and that there are more, but I cannot find it at this moment.

Anyway, it’s got me again questioning the validity of the memories attached to these flashbacks. The above mentioned well-gathered page for repressed memories cautioned that anyone wanting to tackle previously forgotten trauma ask themselves a few questions, including:

  • “Why do I want to recover (more) memories?”

  • “What do I hope that recovering memories will do for me?”

  • “Why do I wish I could know for sure whether I was abused?”

  • “What problems and suffering in my life now do I believe will be changed by remembering abuse?”

I know for myself, I simply want the flashbacks to subside. I want to be able to stop experiencing the sensations of being assaulted over and over again. I want my life back. I want to function again. I hesitate to tell anyone close to me the details because I am aware that newly discovered memories can be misleading. I want to talk about it with a neutral third party (therapist) so I can explore it, get it out of me, and hopefully move on from it. I don’t necessarily want to discover more memories because honestly, this is plenty, but I do want them to stop popping up. So if there are more locked away in my brain, bring it on and let me deal with it so I can stop being so strongly and adversely effected by it. I also want to figure out how to be ok without ever knowing for sure if these memories are accurate. My only goal in dealing with them is to make them leave me alone already.

All that said, I think I have a slightly different take on what body memories are, at least for me. I’m not sure I believe that we remember specific incidents at a cellular level unrelated to the brain. I think the memories are stored in the brain, but just separated out from the conscious, cognitive remembering. Muscle memory is the concept that our muscles “remember” frequently used motions and can return to it at any point in the future, even without much practice or conscious thought (the rough definition paraphrased from here). In school, we learned about muscle memory in relation to fitness, learning to play musical instruments, repetitive physical activities, etc. I would hazard that what I am experiencing as body memories are actually just muscle memories (which I would say are more subconscious memories, rather than ones actually stored in muscles, but I  have no evidence for that). Anyway, my personal theory is that traumatic events or ones causing great stress can also cause “muscle memory”. If we go with the theory that traumatic events are more salient because they allow us (as a species) to survive and avoid such traumas again, then it makes perfect sense that we would store those memories in a number of ways for quick access. Think of it this way, you’re walking along in the wilderness and stub your toe on a rock. It slows you down, you’re not able to get where you are going, and you may be sick & hungry for a while. Once you heal, you notice your toe still kinda hurts sometimes, but not all the time. You pay more attention to it when it hurts. You then start to notice that the hurt really only comes when you are in a place with more rocks around. You begin to pay attention to the rocks in order to avoid stubbing your toe again. I think body memories are quite valid. I also think they evolved as a way to enable us to pay better attention to the things around us to which we need to pay attention either to make life easier, or to spare our lives. With PTSD and flashbacks, this all somehow got kicked into over-drive. Our brains are desperately trying to protect us, so it throws this stuff our way. It is also trying to make sense of stuff that doesn’t compute well with our conscious thoughts… Take PTSD theory, toss it in a blender with muscle memory, and you get body memories that accompany the flashbacks (after all, most flashbacks also include a physical re-experiencing of an event)… I think the intensity and salience of “negative” body memories can be explained with the same theory that explains the intensity and salience of negative cognitive memories. Afterall, most people do not claim to experience “flashbacks” of really happy times. I have not yet heard of people being randomly triggered into remembering their happiest moments in the same full-on, 3D, THX, IMax experience of traumatic memories. There are no anecdotal stories of people re-living the good times to the intensity of the really bad ones. There’s no body of research on the spontaneous re-experiencing of strongly positive experiences, so why is the argument against body memories centered around the lack of body memories for positive experiences? Just some things to think about.

(on a side note, and only marginally related to all this, I’m kinda frustrated/pissed/angry/sad that Dr. Glenn Doyle seems to have disappeared from the blogosphere and the internet in general. I was trying to link to the post where he described flashbacks as 3D, THX, IMax experiences, but his blog is gone. His fb page is inactive, and his practice seems to have moved according to psychologytoday.com. I worked with him very briefly while inpatient in DC back in 2011 and really liked his style. He has a similar sense of humor, but writes much more eloquently than I do. I hope he is well, and I hope he reappears again soon… I miss reading his thoughts on things).

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