Informational Article: Implicit Memories and Memory Systems

Implicit memories are one of our forms of memory. Understanding implicit memory can help us understand much about our life and how trauma impacts our cognition, recall, behaviors and experiences of life. Through this understanding, we can better connect to ourselves and learn new ways to heal.

Implicit Memories VS Explicit Memories

Explicit memories break down into declarative and episodic memory. Implicit memories break down into emotional and procedural. Procedural memories further breakdown to approach/avoid learned behaviors and emergency responses.

Explicit

  • Conscious: within our awareness and our usual cognitive process.
  • Contain: facts & figures along with our story memories.
  • Experienced as happening in the past.
  • Formed by the stimuli that we are focusing on.
  • Repetition makes the memories stronger and can be re-contextualized.
  • Stored more within the higher brain systems (hippocampus, Neo-cortex & amygdala)
  • Subject to memory drift and overwriting.

Implicit

  • Unconscious: Outside of normal cognitive process and awareness.
  • Contains: emotional and procedural memory.
  • Experienced as happening in the present.
  • Formed even when we aren’t aware and can be of things we are not focused on.
  • Has strong physiological aspects.
  • Not as subject to memory overwriting and fact drift.
  • Repetition makes the memories stronger and can be re-contextualized.
  • Stored heavily in the brain-body system (Basal ganglia, cerebellum, thalamus & Brain Stem)
A line with the ends labelled conscious on the left and unconscious on the right. There are four labels from right to left Declarative, episodic, emotional and procedural. Connected bylines to the left two is a label reading explicitly. A label connected to the right two labels reads implicit.
Spectrum of Memory

Explicit Memories

They are not created until eighteen months of age and formed mostly from what we are focusing on the material. These are the memories we think of when we hear the term memory. Like events we’ve lived through, math facts or people’s names. They can be recalled in cognitive processes.

Declarative Memories

A catalogued list of information like a shopping list or math facts. This information can be spontaneously recalled but is most often voluntarily recalled. Declarative memory is stored in the cerebral cortex.

This form of memory is important to get daily tasks done, stay ordered, and be able to share discrete information to other people. When combined with episodic memory we create coherent narratives of our lives.

Episodic Memories

Also called autobiographical, narrative or story 

Remembered as vignettes or movie scenes, both intentional recall and spontaneous recall can bring these up. These memories vary in quality from hazy or dreamlike to lifelike and detailed. They’re stored in the hippocampus and start developing around age three and a half.

They integrate into our story and create meaning. This means over time new emotions, connections and events become attached to older memories. This is why memories can be only happy when we’re young but become melancholy overtime. For example memories of a loved one might be pleasant at the time, but after a death they take on new meaning and emotional connotation. Due to being overwritten to form meaning in our story it can be subject to fact drift.

Implicit Memories

Implicit memories are memories that we carry unconsciously and cannot be actively recalled as stories or facts. They are the groundwork our lives are built on and influences our relationships, responses to stress, behavior, arousal, and skills.

We do not have the sensation or cognitive patterns of memory when they are remembered. They are recalled and formed without needing our attention. It’s emotions, a sense of safety, somatization, and/or procedures not as information or images. Procedures are automatic actions the body does, these are also called action patterns.

This type of memory starts forming in-utero and continues our entire life. Implicit memories are not easily forgotten and are strongest in childhood, through repeated events and when experienced with those we have a strong attachment too.

They are deeply physisolgical memories connected to our arousal states and nervous response, like muscle memory and the background radiation of emotions. This is because of our brain-body connection, emotional functioning and how the body holds our experiences. They affect our perceptions of current events and change how we process and form memories later on.

These memories are not only formed in trauma, they can also be a positive memory or lack strong emotional content at all. Implicit memories can be triggered forward by any stimuli like the explicit memories you are familiar with. However, implicit memories formed during trauma or toxic stress play a key role in our identity and stress responses. Traumatic implicit memories will be some of the strongest. But they are also key in healing.

Examples of Implicit Memories At Work

  • If approached by a dog, our implicit memory will kick in. If we were traumatized by a dog, we might freeze up or walk away while those of us who have not will naturally approach.
  • When we smell cookies implicit memories of the safety of Christmas might come up therefore we become calm and open.
  • Remembering how to ride a bike, type without looking down or swimming.
  • If we hear a door slamming we might immediately freeze and try to figure out how to protect yourself. This would likely be connected to a pattern of behavior of an abuser.
  • Hyper-compliance, picking a fight or rationally going through the instruction of an authority figure due to  how authority figures treated us as kids.

Types of Implicit Memories

a hierarchy graph with three levels.  The top areas implicit memories. The second level has two branches one reads emotional and the right reads procedural memories. THe third level follows under the right reads: approach/avoid, the middle: emergency response and the far right reads: learned motor.

Emotional Memories

  • Color how we perceive and react to events
  • Emotional memories can be of any emotion or combination of them
  • Encode memories and add flags to other forms of memory
  • External stimuli can trigger emotional memories and physiological processes like a head or stomach ache
  • Experienced somatically
  • Form our felt sense of life
  • Form the basis of how to relate and interact with our identity
  • Help broadly organize responses of our body and minds to other stimuli
  • Important in attunement
  • Interfaces with procedural body memories that allows us to connect how we act physically to our emotional state.
  • This will color how what we expect to feel when going into new situations
  • Trauma forms strong emotional memories that can be triggered in non-traumatic situations.
  • When connected with approach-avoid and procedural memories to form primary emotions of attachment

When you are in an emotional situation what is brought up internally might trigger an emotional implicit memory and cause a flood of emotions and heighten your responses. You might believe you are overreacting or that it came out of the blue, but it’s a function of how we organize our minds.

Procedural

Procedural memories include impulses, movements, bodily sensations, physiological reactions that guide the how of our actions. This is a semi broad term but essentially it’s all the subconscious work that helps us function. It is further broken down into three subcategories.

Learned Motor

This covers many of the basic gross and fine motor skills we learn. From the most basic actions like walking and talking to more complicated skills like playing the piano or riding a bike all rely on our learned motor skills. These action patterns we carry are continually changed by higher regions of the brain and memory systems to allow for these skills to adapt and change as we learn new things. 

Emergency Responses

Call on our survival instincts in the face of a threat. This works in tandem with the Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn responses to manage threatening experiences. This includes involuntary actions like bracing and controlling muscles or moving to cover the head.

Fixed action patterns are changed by the frontal areas of our brain when we learn new information but the most basic levels of the tasks will stay

Approach/Avoidance or Attraction/Repulsion

This is the most basic response of what we move towards or move away from stimulus. We approach what is likely a source of basic needs and safety and avoid what is likely to injure us or might be toxic.

Avoid actions: stiffening, muscle, retracting & contracting

Approach Actions: reaching, extending & expanding

Priming

One of the main ways traumatic implicit memories affects our daily life is through priming. Priming is our brain, expecting and acting on what we have previously experienced. Our brain activates the same electrical and chemical signals which causes our emotions and thoughts to follow similar patterns as before. This also applies to physiological responses and muscle movements in patterns congruent to past situations.

Implicit memories cause us to form expectations on how the world works based on our previous experiences. These memories help us form core beliefs and schemas which influences how we view everything going forward.

This priming along with setting up our perceptions of how the world works but can cause our bodies to act without us even telling them to. This can be helpful in working with our fight-or-flight response to get us out of danger, but might also cause us to physically act as if we are in danger when we aren’t causing us to hurt ourselves and others.

Emotional priming can also cause us to move towards a state of reacting to a similar situation that provoked extreme stress and views anything vaguely similar as being the same as a trauma. It can push through our logical thinking and cognitive understanding of the situation. Our felt sense of the world and a sense of safety within our body is powerful .  

An example can be a person leaving us for normal reasons like business trips that might invoke the experience of a physical or emotional abandonment as a child.

Trauma and Implicit Memory

Traumatic Response

Intense levels of fear, anger, terror or rage compel us instantaneously and. Unequivocally act unconsciously, selecting and evoking specific procedural memories for fighting or fleeing. If we cannot fully execute these actions or are overwhelmed, we freeze or collapse.” (Levine pg 40), [Collapse is the fold and fawn response.] This is the crux of how procedural memories of the avoid and emergency response type influences the behavior of our stress response. 

Traumatic responses are based on our implicit memories, but they also strengthen our implicit memories gained during abuses. “Persistent maladaptive procedural and emotional memories from the core mechanism the underlies all trauma as well as many problematic social and relationship issues,” (Levine, 2015, pg, 38) This is key to understand when looking at healing because understanding we understand the interplay of emergency memories, avoid memories and our fight, flight and fawn responses. It also helps us see why we consistently feel like we are in trauma on an unconscious emotional and behavioural level.

A blond girl in jeans and a jean jacket sitting in a doorway. She is covering her face with arched shoulders.

When traumatic responses fail, or we do not discharge the stress, we carry these responses into situations that are not traumatic. Carrying these chronic stress dysregulates our nervous system and arousal patterns leading to hyper and hypo-arousal. When our body stays in these states, our brain wiring becomes used to being in these states, so we remember this as the proper response. Due to the constant repetition of these implicit memories become stronger and those implicit memories gain more influence over our behavior.

Traumatic responses can override the acquisition of normal adaptive learned motor skills. These normal physical responses become habitual survival-based reactive patterns. This shows how not only emotional social actions can be impacted but activities of daily living or interrupt the ability to learn new skills. 

When intense emotional and procedural memories become chronically activated and emotions and actions that were adaptive and helpful become corrosive and maladaptive,

Flashbacks

Body memories are connected to implicit memories. Flashbacks, specifically somatic and emotional flashbacks, are heavily tied to implicit memories. It is important to remember that implicit memories are not inherently flashbacks and visa-versa. Implicit memories are experienced as happening in the now like flashbacks and can be a direct part of a flashbacks but not all traumatic implicit memories are flashbacks.

Relationships

Implicit memories set up our relationships via the extrapolation from experiences. We become primed to believe others will act in the same way as those who hurt us in the past. This can break down our ability to form trust with others, to believe we will be hurt, to expect abuse and have negative beliefs about our ability to form relationships. It can also cause us to be okay with maltreatment because this is how things have always been; it’s how our bodies know to live. 

If our body carries an expectation of physical or sexual assault from others, then even sub consciously we will react as if these dangers will always be there. When considering perception of relationships changes and the propensity to stay in harmful relationships, we can consider the overlap of implicit memories with the effects of traumatic bonding and grooming. They overlap in how they affect us and in how they  form. 

Our implicit memories are formed the same time as our attachment; our implicit memories will often reinforce how our attachment style influences our relationships. An example is if our implicit memories bring up extreme emotions and instigate our fear response, the ability to heal relational rupture will be impacted.

Healing

Healing traumatic effects of implicit memories entails the ability to move between implicit to explicit memories and back again within our brains and carry body memories that promote safety and healing.

An Art Therapy Exercise

Implicit memories change through life experiences. So to heal we need to have experiences similar to previous life events but offer a felt sense of safety and new activity patterns that promote healing. We must connect and activate all aspects of the brain-body system to form a felt sense, when our body and thoughts are all linked, of safety and not only cognitive understanding.

Renegotiation

One way this is done is through renegotiation. Renegotiation is a means of healing traumatic memories by realizing chronic stress by the creative restructuring of maladaptive dysregulated responses and memories. 

Renegotiation occurs primarily by accessing procedural memories associated with the two dysregulated states of the autonomic nervous system-hyperarousal/overwhelm or hypoarousal/shutdown and helplessness,” (Levine, 2015, pg 43-44)

Renegotiation is a therapeutic process that alters the sequence of biological action patterns and stress responses of our nervous system and brains. This is connected to the integration of explicit memories and the wider effects of trauma.

Using implicit Memories to Heal 

Implicit memories can be part of healing in other ways as well. It helps us learn how we adapted and reacted to previous traumas through knowing our emotional states and the procedural memories tell us the ways our bodies worked to protect us. 

Our strong emotional and emergency procedural memories that are triggered in the now help us understand our triggers along with where we need to place and work with our emotions and understand what emotional scars our trauma left us with. 

Knowing this allows us to find coping skills that best help, learn what behaviour we can work on, identify memories that need integration,  and figure out what our body needs us to do to show ourselves love. 

Conclusion

Through this understanding of implicit memories and memory systems, we can better heal and be connected to our experiences. When we know what is going on our body we can truly connect with it and change the brain-body system to better lead us into life with less traumatic stress and more joy.

Citations

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