Explicit Memories

Can't shake the bad feelings associated with a memory?

How trauma affects our memories

You can't recall the details, but you're still haunted by a bad memory?

Well, there's a good reason you can't recall the details of a bad event. First know that the good chemicals released during a traumatic and stressful event helps you to escape or, fight off the bad guy. That's a good thing. You survived.

However, those same chemicals are toxic to an area of the brain where you lay down new memories.

Yeah, you don't remember the details - the explicit details.

Your recall of an event refers to what's called an explicit memory. Also known as declarative memory, explicit memory is used for recalling facts, personal events, history notes etc.

  • So recalling that yesterday you had coffee at Starbucks is an explicit memory.
  • Remembering what you did on your last Birthday is also an explicit memory.

Explicit memories differ from implicit memories

Implicit memories are not accessed directly. They can however be triggered by anything that's associated with a memory, negatively or positively.

That oldies tune that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy? That's an implicit memory.

You're not only recalling that you like the tune - a part of you is also remembering the times that you heard that tune way back when. Maybe it was a time you were hanging out with friends, and beginning to get your sea legs as an adult.

All those experiences - those different states you were in at the time - are associated with the good feelings around that piece of music.

A friend of mine who was in a skiing accident cannot recall what happened. She knows something happened because she has a cast on her lower leg.

When she thinks about skiing again she gets an uneasy feeling. Her body mind is remembering even though she cannot. That's an implicit memory.

The hard part is that sometimes you can be triggered and have no clue why you're upset.

Feelings towards ourselves are often related to implicit memories

Don't feel worthy enough?

You're accessing memories, most likely memories from your childhood when you didn't get sufficient attuned care during critical periods of your development.

Explicit memory makes therapy a bit more complicated

As you may have heard me say before, much of our work in therapy is about making the implicit explicit.

In other words, therapy is about making us more conscious about our behaviour, our emotions and our sense of ourselves.

What's important to understand for any kind of change you embark on - including therapy - is that explicit memory easily decays.

In fact, we're frightfully prone to forgetting over time . . . some of us more than others :-0

Explicit memories get distorted easily

Any time you retrieve a memory from the many files in your brain - you automatically change the original by associating it with the characteristics of that very moment you access it.

Like if I asked you when was the last time you had a really good time - you're going to pick through the files in your brain. Once you nail a time and pull that file out - before you even say a word - you've started to change the original.

Here's a good example

Tell your story enough times, and it changes each time you access it. Let's say it's a funny story. Everyone laughs.

The next time you bring that story up - it now contains a thread of the last time you shared it with others. And you think, "hey, maybe I'm onto something here" ๐Ÿ™‚

However, the third time you told that story you were with overly left-brain types who just didn't get it ๐Ÿ™

That experience is now mixed in with the original memory.

Now that little bit of a downer is mixed into the memory of you sharing the story. And maybe on the fourth time telling it, you put just a little less oomph into it owing to your last experience. Jeepers.

Traumatic memories are different

In times of traumatic stress our tendency to forget is even more probable. The reason this is so is related to our neurobiology.

So how do you deal with a traumatic event in therapy or in your life when you can't even remember it?

The answer lies in how the brain stores implicit memories.

What happens during a traumatic event

During times of stress, the body is flooded by cortisol, a hormone that helps us to take action. Cortisol is - unfortunately - toxic to the hippocampus where our explicit or declarative memories are organized.

However, we often still retain the body sense memory of the traumatic event. This somatic memory is believed to reside in the amygdala where it is not subject to decay by cortisol.

This enables the body to remember a bad situation as a preventative measure should the same circumstances arise again. This has survival advantages.

So for instance, you may not explicitly remember being in the car accident but every time you drive near the same area where it occurred, you get shivers up your back!

Your body sense memory remembers.

The key to changing how you feel towards yourself

When you're having feelings of low self-esteem (eg. I don't feel I belong, I feel like I'm left out of important things, or I I feel I'm not deserving) when there's no explicit memory popping up, you're likely responding to implicit memories that have been triggered.

Because implicit memories rise to the surface seamlessly, there's often no reason that you can make sense of why you're now feeling poorly towards yourself.

This is one reason why I believe somatic therapies have been so successful. They can get at feelings that developed during a non-verbal time of your life.

Similarly, this is why your body practice gets at memories that are normally unaccessible. And that, is very good news!

Related Topic


Grigsby, Jim & Stevens, David (2000). Neurodynamics of Personality. New York: Guilford Press.

Ledoux, Joseph (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Touchstone Books.

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