One of the things I discuss with clients almost every session in some form is the phenomenon of explicit versus implicit memory. Our implicit memory system affects every aspect of our lives. When operating correctly it is one of our greatest resources. However, when it is associated with negative emotional memories and becomes activated outside of our conscious awareness, which is often the case, it can result in some of our greatest individual and relational blocks.
Explicit, or conscious, memory consist of aspects of experience we are fully aware of, such as images or facts we recall. This is also referred to as declarative memory. Think of giving a presentation at work or sharing information from an article you read with a friend or colleague.
Implicit memory is emotional and is experienced as a felt sense in the body. The majority of the time you are not consciously aware it is activated. Recall a time when it seemed like you overreacted to an event. This is the result of implicit memories being triggered. You may have been confused as to why you reacted so strongly.
Our implicit memory system also includes what is referred to as procedural memory. A good example of this is what I am doing right now – typing. When I was learning how to type, I initially used the explicit system. I memorized the letters and their positions on the keyboard. As I progressed in my ability, it shifted to procedural memory. To gain a certain level of proficiency, I had to let go and trust my subconscious brain had absorbed the information and let this part of the brain take over, which is capable of processing things much faster.
Currently, I can type ninety to a hundred words a minute. However, if I stop and try to consciously think about what I am doing or where the letters are on the keyboard, it will probably drop to about twenty-five. Another example of this type of memory would be driving a car. Long gone are the days of ten and two on the wheel with undistracted focus. Most of us are zoned out or responding to texts with little to no conscious thought about driving.
These two categories of memory are so distinct they are actually stored in different parts of the brain. Explicit memories are stored in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus, while implicit memories are housed in the amygdala, which happens to be the same area of the brain responsible for triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response.
I will now explain why you should care about my lengthy explanation about the brain’s memory systems. The implicit system stores these felt sense memories in the body as a feeling state. These are then triggered by a similar feeling experienced in the present or anything associated with the original emotional memory. Furthermore, this part of the brain has no sense of time and no ability to distinguish between people, time, and place; it is all the same.
Let’s put this into a real-life situation. Maybe, you were raised by a parent who frequently shut down during conflict or whenever they were emotionally triggered. This left you feeling alone, helpless, and abandoned as a child. In your current relationship, you become conflicted with your partner, and the end result is they shut down and refuse to communicate with you. You either explode in anger refusing to ever feel that helpless and abandoned again or sink into a hole of sadness, shame, and powerless taking you days to recover from.
After the dust has settled, and you see things more realistically, you realize they just needed a moment to collect themselves. When you reflect on the incident you surmise an appropriate level of intensity you should have felt was probably a three or four on a scale of ten. But you experienced a level ten. This is implicit memory in action.
In situations such as this, you most likely encountered not just an unprocessed implicit memory but a chain of associated memories. The greater the level of intensity, the more significant fight, flight, or freeze response that will be initiated. When this occurs, your prefrontal cortex, the logical reasoning part of your brain, will shut down or be bypassed for efficiency reasons.
Once your prefrontal cortex comes back online, and your emotions regulate, you either experience shame for your unexplained reaction, or, if you lack sufficient self-awareness, you feel self-righteous and resent your partner for being so hurtful. Neither is a good outcome.
Even if you develop awareness of what happened and can make the connection between the present trigger and the emotional history that became activated, you will not be able to stop it. I have heard various speakers assert once you can gain awareness of what is occurring it will terminate this response. I can definitely tell you this is not true. It is a nice step but will not clear the implicit memories that are being triggered. In many cases, it can make things worse because you ‘know better’ and cannot stop it, which leads to more shame and self-contempt.
The path forward is to obtain help from someone who can assist you in connecting to and releasing these implicit memories. This cannot be achieved through insight or information. You must activate these memories as a felt sense in the body. Subsequently, in the presence of a safe, supportive relationship the energy contained in the emotions can move through the nervous system and release. The brain and nervous system are wired to do so and know exactly how to clear it. The explicit memory will remain, but the implicit memory is permanently erased.
This is the at the heart of psychotherapy. It can be accomplished in a variety of ways. I find many people believe they have done so because they have experienced a level of emotion related to these events, but they have not fully cleared what is stored in the body. Moreover, they may have had powerful experiences at a seminar, training, or in a faith community that created what I would refer to as a state shift.
These can be transformative occurrences on a level. But in every case, I have identified implicit memories still needing to be cleared after beginning to work with my client. Again, I would like to emphasize this can be done in a variety of ways, and psychotherapy is not the only way. Sometimes it occurs through a friend are mentor who is highly intuitive and safe.
In this article, I utilized a relational context to show how implicit memories can be an impediment to achieving your goal of a healthy partnership. The same process occurs when attempting to obtain you individual goals. As you develop more understanding of this process, you realize it has nothing to do with your personality or level of intelligence and occurs to all of us on some level.
This is hands down the number one reason people have not achieved the next level they aspire to. To reach your full potential in all areas of your life, attain the help of a great therapist or coach to break through the blocks these unprocessed implicit memories continue to generate. You are definitely capable of more and deserve to be free from your past and have a clear path to creating the life you were meant to live.